A night on the mountaintop in Afghanistan

NANGAHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan (Sept. 27, 2013) — A squad of Soldiers and their Afghan interpreter gathered in the darkness outside of a building on Forward Operating Base Torkham.

Their mission was simple: climb a nearby mountain where the forward operating base is operating an observation post, link up with the Afghan Security Group, or ASG, personnel manning the observation post, and partner with them to guard the base through the night.

“We set [up] our security [element], just to see what they see,” said the squad leader, Staff Sgt. Shelby Johnson, Company C, 2nd Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry), “(and) also [to] build some rapport with the ASG as well.”

The Soldiers started out at a moderate pace and the bright, nearly full, moon in the cloudless sky meant that the Soldiers did not need their night vision devices.

“The climb’s not the best,” said Pfc. Justin Singleton, an infantryman from Deland, Fla., “but we do what we got to do.”

Singleton was not alone in his thinking.

“That walk is a beast, especially in full kit (body armor, ammo, water, etc.),” said Sgt. Michael Peterson, an infantryman, “You’ve got Singleton caring the 240 (machine gun);you’ve got Snook being his [assistant] … he’s got [his ammo] on his back, plus whatever else he had to bring. That walk is definitely a killer.”

The men made their way up the mountain in silence. Every Soldier learns in basic training that sounds carries farther at night. Every now and then the Soldiers stopped for a few minutes of rest. They still had a long night ahead of them.

When the men approached the observation post, or OP, the ASG personnel took notice. The Soldiers hadn’t told the ASG they were coming.

“As we were coming up, they were calling out to us,” said Johnson, a native of Alex, Okla, “our [interpreter] said ‘friendlies coming up.'”

After reaching the summit of the mountain, the Soldier’s quickly and quietly took up their position. The squad’s machine gun was set up, as well as their night vision equipment.

While this was happening, Johnson, his translator and an ASG soldier talked in hush whispers, updating each other on what had been seen in the surrounding area.

“You got to maintain noise and light discipline,” said Peterson, an native of Winder, Ga., “You don’t want anybody to know that you’re up there.”

Peterson had carried some snacks for his men as well as the ASG. He passed these out. The ASG brought out chilled water for the Soldiers.

Johnson and Peterson went to the back of the OP to fine tune the night’s mission with the new information. His machine gun set up, Singleton, with the help of the translator, talked to one of the ASG.

“Has he ever been to another country,” asked Singleton?

“He has been to Pakistan,” replied the interpreter for the ASG man.

“Are there a lot of snakes and bugs up here,” asked Singleton?

“More scorpions than snakes,” answered the ASG man.

“Oh man,” said Singleton. “Do you like scorpions?”

“No,” replied the ASG man.

“Me neither,” said Singleton.

Both men softly laughed in the darkness.

For Singleton, who is on his first deployment, this is one of the few chances he has to interact with Afghans.

“You get to talk to the guards up here. You get to know a little bit of their culture,” said Singleton, “[you learn] their perspective … how they live their lives [and] take risks doing this job.”

The men split up into two groups: one group would try to sleep nearby while the other kept watch. Sometime during the night the groups would switch places, ensuring that a fresh set of eyes were always scanning the area. The Afghan interpreter stayed with the Soldiers on duty. The ASG men kept watch with those on duty.

As Singleton manned his machine gun, Spc. Hoang Ngyun, an infantryman, scanned the surrounding mountain ridges and valleys and Peterson sat nearby, using an earpiece to monitor the radio.

“You look around,” said Ngyun, a native of Westminster, Calif. “If you see anything suspicious you use [the enhanced night vision optical telescope].”

For hours the Soldiers sat in the darkness and scanned the area. Talking was kept to the bare minimum. The silence was broken by dogs from some nearby dwellings who would occasionally bark. Every time this happened the Soldiers would use their night vision devices to scan the area where the noise came from.

Eventually it was time to change groups. Johnson was awakened and briefed by Peterson, then, fellow infantrymen Spc. Robert Snook, a native of Owosso, Mich., and Spc. Dali Carrillo, a native of Winston Salem, N.C., the rest of Johnson’s team, were awakened. Peterson, Ngyun and Singleton, went to try and grab a few hours of sleep on the ground nearby.

For a while the routine remained the same; then everything changed as the sun began to rise and people began to move about the surrounding area. If the Soldiers or their ASG counterparts stood up they could be seen by people traveling on nearby roads or mountains.

“What type of vehicle is it?” asked Johnson, when a vehicle traveling toward them on the road below began to slow down.

“Some type of van,” replied Snook as he looked through a pair of binoculars.

Snook kept watching the vehicle, making sure that its occupants were looking at the road and not looking up in their direction. The vehicle had slowed because there was a deep dip in the road. As soon as it was past the dip, it accelerated and continued on its way.

This was how the Soldiers spent their last hour-and-a-half on the mountain top. As they packed up their equipment and began to move back down the mountain one of the ASG men called Johnson over.

On a nearby mountain ridge there was a lone figure slowly moving in their direction. For approximately one-half hour, Johnson and the ASG man looked through their binoculars at the figure; they were trying to determine if he had a weapon, maybe a pair of binoculars and was trying to gather intelligence on their position for a future attack, or maybe he had climbed that mountain top to see the sunrise, Johnson’s position was between the figure and the sun.

Eventually other assets were able to observe the figure and it was determined that he was a not a threat to the outpost or its men.

Johnson was pleased, not only because the ASG had notified him of the figure on the nearby mountain top, but also that he and his men may have been seen.

“Hopefully, identifying that guy possibly stopped something that could have happened,” said Johnson. “It also lets them [anyone who may be watching the outpost] know that we’re not just relying on the ASG for security. We can pop up anywhere at anytime.”

There was one thing left to do before Johnson and his men could grab a few hours of sleep before they had to head out on another mission, they had to walk down the mountain.

“It’s just as bad as going up,” said Johnson.