Somewhat like a Peace Corps with guns, the ADT has its own security team to protect it.
“My Force Protection and Security Platoon is absolutely vital to the conduct of our mission in this particular environment,” ADT Cmdr. Brian Copes said. “We would not be able to conduct any of the other agricultural-related operations without them there to support us.”
Missions can be nerve-wracking, such as a recent one in the volatile Bak District. While traveling through a hostile village in armored MRAPs, the security team begins to see troubling signs. The convoy creeps down the narrow lane, the intercom crackling with soldiers’ reports. The village seems deserted, one notes. The bad guys have already planted six or seven IEDs within 600 meters of this spot, an officer says. There’s no traffic, says another. A man in a field is watching intently. Someone calls out a metal teapot is by the road. Maybe a bomb? A gourd hanging from a tree triggers a truck commander’s sixth sense — he tells to his gunner to get down. Then a donkey blocks the road-the insurgents sometimes use animals to pack their IEDs. A wheelbarrow with a yellow bucket looks suspicious, till ice is spotted in the container. An Afghan lurking by a house makes a cell phone call and disappears. A second later a concussive blast rolls through the convoy.
There’s a moment of quiet as the security team assesses the damage.
Troops in the lead vehicle report an IED trip-wire catcher did its job. Jury-rigged by the security team out of a wooden pole and heavy coiled wire, it triggered the bomb in front of the truck. Everything was OK. But then the soldiers spot another IED trip wire, blocking the team’s path.
With the route blocked by the second IED, the team makes the decision to back up and use a dry riverbed as a road.
Captain Bob Cline said trying to win the war and the hearts and minds of the Afghan people makes security a tough job.
“Well, as far as your security forces go, it’s a hard mission, because they have to be polite, they have to be professional, and they have to be prepared to kill-in that order,” Cline said. “And that’s a hard balance.”
Some of the security platoon’s most difficult duty comes when the agricultural experts are out in the villages and bazaars, where potential disaster can be imminent.
“At times it makes my heart flutter, to have the commander out there in the population,” said Sgt. Brendan Wilczynski. “But that’s his intent and we’re doing the best we can to support it.”
Each mission “outside the wire,” as leaving the base is called, is meticulously planned. Platoon leaders relentlessly repeat the Escalation of Force rules that dictate the use of weapons. Equipment is checked and re-checked. And there is a lot of time on the firing range.
However well trained, the competing priorities can create internal conflicts in soldiers trained to be door-kicking infantrymen, not warm-and-fuzzy aid workers.
“It’s great what the ADT is doing, but it’s not what I do,” said Sgt. Charles Felts, a former Marine. “I’m still infantry and I’m providing the security so the experts can do their thing, make sure they get out to the farmers, meet the key leaders and get them home safely. I’m still an infantry grunt, just not as kinetically as I’m used to. I don’t know if I’ll do it again. It’s frustrating if IEDs go off or if you know the bad guys are out there.”
But the Force Protection and Security Platoon stands ready to do its job as even its youngest member understands.
“I mean, I understand there are people out there trying to kill us, but that’s what we’re here for, to protect people,” said Specialist Joshua Lovell-Ramey.
Next week: a day on Forward Operating Base Salerno, the ADT’s home in eastern Afghanistan.