Saturday, March 5, 2011

The long ride back through the most dangerous road in Afghanistan....

Yikes...Let's hope there isn't a case of "road rage" out there as it could be lethal....

Bastogne Soldiers navigate ‘most dangerous road in Afghanistan’
Combined Joint Task Force 101
Story by Sgt. 1st Class Mark Burrell

NANGARHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan – Tortured mountains and skeletal vehicles litter the pock-marked Jalalabad-Kabul highway as it snakes its way along the Kabul Gorge between the Hindu Kush Mountains.

As the last leg of the famed Grand Trunk Highway, it is an essential route for caravans heading into Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul.

Late Feb. 28, it was an essential route for soldiers from Forward Support Company G, 2nd Battalion, 320th Field Artillery Regiment, Task Force Balls, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, escorting a convoy through the shadow of the mountains.

“I had faith in our guys’ ability,” said U.S. Army Capt. Jose M. Gamboa, Co. G commander. “The whole unknown of what we were about to go through, you really couldn’t describe it to somebody and have them grasp the whole magnitude of what we were facing.”

The highway’s hairpin turns and sharp drops contrast the natural beauty of the surrounding mountains. Dubbed the most dangerous road in Afghanistan by The New York Times, the tension mounted with the elevation as the convoy pressed on.

Vehicles ignored posted speed limit signs and gravity as snow began to fall, making the roads slippery and even more unpredictable.

“The Afghan driver is a greedy type of driver with everyone jockeying for position as if it were a horse race,” added Gamboa, who is from Crestview, Fla. “That type of mentality makes it difficult to drive.”

After passing a burned-out vehicle, the convoy rounded the first hairpin turn and it became clear that these Soldiers were in for a long haul.

“You’re talking about an operator driving an extremely heavy vehicle in extreme conditions,” explained Gamboa. “Once we got to that first hairpin, we saw the lights up on the mountain, not knowing where the road was or who was up there, not knowing the tightness of the curves… It starts to hit you.”

With just about seven feet to maneuver past gridlocked trucks hugging the side of the mountain, there isn’t much room for error.

The cliffs dropped off into complete darkness as the vehicles slowly made their way up the mountainside.

“Most of my guys have multiple deployments. For some of them, it’s their first deployment,” said Gamboa, “but my guys have seen a lot and experienced a lot in the past 11 months to help them navigate those tight spots.”

The Co. G soldiers’ mission was to escort seven Afghan trucks carrying supplies from the realignment of the Pech River Valley bases from Jalalabad Airfield back to Bagram Airfield via Kabul.

Just then, the convoy reached a dark tunnel about 300 meters long and the Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles couldn’t go any further. The tunnel was packed with stalled trucks.

“It was the longest tunnel of the route,” Gamboa said. “That was the decision point. Our MRAPs are wide and bulky. The Jinga trucks didn't pull all the way to the side, because if they have a high load, then they’ll scrape the top of the tunnel.”

Taking decisive action, while always mindful of a Taliban ambush, the Soldiers dismounted their MRAPs to coax the sleeping trucks out of hibernation.

“They went to the other side of the tunnel and told them to back up and hug the side of the tunnel,” said Gamboa. “Then at the entrance portion, they had pushed them forward.”

“A little nerve-wracking isn’t it?” said U.S. Army 1st Lt. Todd C. Castles, a platoon leader from Greenwood, S.C. “A lot of these trucks, I don’t see how they’re going to make it.”

With a cacophony of horns, Pashtu, Dari and English, the trucks slowly were repositioned to make room for the convoy to squeeze through.

After a precious half hour slipped by, emerging from the tunnel was a small victory. Yet, the jagged drop and crumbling infrastructure of the road up ahead didn’t spell relief for the Soldiers just yet.

“It’s OK to be scared but, more or less, it’s how you handle it,” said Castles. “You can see down the cliff and there’s no end in sight… None of the other roads we’ve traveled are this slim.”

Hulking MRAP tires squeaked over the asphalt while skirting the edge of the road.

“Some of the turns are real tough, the terrain is real rough,” explained U.S. Army Spc. Tommy J. Porter, a light-wheeled vehicle mechanic from Warren, Mich. “I probably had a couple of inches on either side from smashing into the Jinga trucks.”

Porter, driving a heavy expanded mobility tactical truck wrecker, maneuvered one of the heaviest vehicles on the road. Squeezing between the Afghan trucks pushed against the mountain and the deadly fall of the steep cliffs, Porter had a unique perspective.

“When I’m making tight turns, our cab was going over the side of the mountain,” said Porter. “Our wrecker has its wheels behind the cab, so my wheels are actually still on the mountain while my cab is looking over the edge.”

Zigzagging back and forth up to about 5,000 feet, the convoy slowly crested the mountain, leaving behind the other vehicles to fend for themselves as the fog descended.

“The weather is pretty cold, pretty crappy, there’s snow everywhere,” said Castles. “We’re moving at 5 mph. Also, we’re all pretty tired, ‘cause we’ve been up close to 24 hours. The road sucks, it’s muddy with lots of bumps.”

After more than 12 hours of driving, the soldiers finally turned off the highway toward the security of Bagram Air Field.

“I don’t even know if there’s a word for how tired I am,” said Castles over the drone of his MRAP. “You can’t really quit, you get to the point where you want to, but you can’t until we get inside the FOB. It’s a weird feeling.”

Safely inside Bagram Air Field, the soldiers said goodbye to their Afghan trucks and headed for hot chow and sleep. The next day, they played cards, napped and did maintenance on their trucks preparing for the long ride back through the most dangerous road in Afghanistan

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