Long before we reached the flight line, I could hear the helicopters waiting to ferry troops away from Kandahar Airfield. The type of helicopter was unmistakable even without my seeing it: the CH-47 Chinook's twin rotors spin in opposite directions, beating four-on-the-floor bass whumps in frantic, compound time, which echoed off of the blast walls in the frigid morning air.
I've ridden in Chinooks at least a half-dozen times since the night in Baghdad in 2005 when I nearly tumbled out of one, but a smile crossed my face when the flight chief told us we'd be riding in a Black Hawk. At the very least, I figured, the Black Hawk's doors would shield some of the cold air during the short flight across the barren plains to Camp Nathan Smith, on the outskirts of Kandahar city.
When I left the Army, I figured I had seen my last combat zone. But less than a year later, my old unit, the 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, in which I served for more than four years, deployed to Afghanistan after three tours in Iraq. A million questions sprang to my mind: How would the soldiers and noncommissioned officers learn to operate in Afghanistan after so many years in Iraq? Would lessons they learned in urban combat translate into fighting on a desolate countryside? How were their families handling another deployment after so many in quick succession?
In the end, the only way to find answers was to ask in person. So at 5 a.m. on New Year's Day, as friends back home were toasting the end of 2010, I boarded a flight from Dubai to Kandahar. For three weeks I will embed with my old battalion to try to tell the story of a unit that has spent much of the past decade in combat, fighting what is now a new and entirely different kind of war.
For two of my four years in 1-22 Infantry, I served in E Company, which was then made up of about 90 combat engineers. As part of the Army's constant organizational evolution, E Company became C Company, 1st Special Troops Battalion. The new C Company is a powerful example of the complexity of the NATO-ISAF unit: the company's commander, Captain Michael Parks, is in charge of a 275-soldier amalgamation conducting missions ranging from IED hunting to aggressive patrolling to provincial reconstruction across nearly a third of southern and western Afghanistan.
One of my former sergeants, Sergeant First Class Kristopher Tate, is now the top enlisted man in a platoon that works with French Canadians to help run the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team. Tate has seen more combat than nearly anyone else in his generation. A veteran of the Iraq invasion, Tate fought his way into Baghdad as part of the 3rd Infantry Division's "thunder runs" that collapsed Saddam Hussein's regime. When I was serving my first combat tour, he was already on his third; on this, his fifth deployment, he is part combat leader, part ambassador, both to the people of Kandahar and to the Canadian soldiers who are his partners.
The Kandahar mission, Parks points out, is the easier one to oversee. Two of his platoons search for IEDs in what are known as route-clearance patrols. One platoon operates in Farah province near the Afghan border with Iran, 185 miles (300 km) from the company's headquarters. The larger challenge lies with the platoon posted in Bala Morghab, a lonely outpost on the Turkmenistan border the troops simply call BMG. "Up at BMG, they're completely alone, and all the routes are black," Parks says, explaining that the roads leading to their outpost are so riddled with IEDs that resupply convoys can't use them. "They're basically the Alamo."
Because of the distance and danger, all resupply at BMG is done by airdrop. The troops secure a landing zone, and at designated times, Air Force planes drop up to 40 pallets of food, water, ammunition and spare parts for the large route-clearance vehicles. Managing this task falls to First Lieutenant Simon Chung, C Company's executive officer, and Staff Sergeant Gabriel Minor, his top noncommissioned officer. "That's been one of the hardest parts of this tour," Minor says, "having to sort of reinvent the wheel with basic things all over again."
Minor, who is on his fourth combat tour after three tours in Iraq, has a proclivity for reinventing the wheel when necessary. In 2006, shrapnel from an IED blew off part of his right index finger. In order to stay in the Army, he had to demonstrate to a medical board that he could still fire his weapon, so he trained himself to shoot with his second finger pulling the trigger. Before this deployment, Minor trained as a pathfinder, a specialist in helicopter operations, so he could plan the resupply missions necessary for BMG. "I can't say enough about Sergeant Minor. He really holds a lot of this together," Parks says.
But as well as the complex missions are prepared, things don't always go according to plan. In the fall, before he became C Company's executive officer, Chung served as a platoon leader at BMG. One of the airdrops, containing all of the troops' cold-weather clothing and gear, went awry. "We had the drop scheduled for a certain time. Then we heard the planes, and I thought, Oh, crap, they're an hour early," Chung says. He and his troops quickly got to the landing zone, but by the time they secured the area, local Afghanis had made off with all of their equipment and fled beyond the area's sandy berms. Chung and his men had to request more clothing, which barely arrived before the cold weather set in.
Aerial resupply is one of the many missions for which a mechanized unit like C Company rarely trains. But when the troops received word that they would be headed to Kandahar, it was one of the many things they knew they would need. As Parks explains, it's all part of the tradition of combat engineers. "We get a mission, and it's like, We've never done this before," Parks says. "But we just figure it out. That's all you can do, is figure it out."