Operation Afghanistan Postcard: 24 hours on Afghanistan's front line
About 2,100 members of Alaska's Spartan Brigade are assigned to 25 different installations across Afghanistan. Although some are serving at large bases like Bagram Airfield, others are based at far more remote outposts involved in counter-terrorism efforts.
Photojournalist Albert Lutan and I visited one of those small outposts in the Nangahar Province. It's called OP Mad Dog, one of several outposts located in the Mohmand Valley, which is currently considered the front line in the fight against ISIS and the Taliban.
We flew in on a Chinook helicopter from Jalalabad Airfield, escorted by two Apache helicopters, which were locked, loaded and ready to respond to any threatening insurgents hiding in the hills of the Mohmand Valley.
Once on the ground, we entered the gates to OP Mad Dog, a small, rugged outpost with a beautiful view of the Hindukush mountains, but no running water, no kitchen, tents made from scratch and extremely limited Internet connectivity.
Because of the outpost's location, infantry and artillery platoons from the 4-25 stand guard in towers around the clock. Their primary role is to provide security, specifically field artillery fire and surface-to-surface fire support, for Special Forces conducting operations with the Afghan troops in the Valley.
During our time on the ground, we were able to watch soldiers test fire a Mk 19 grenade launcher, a Carl Gustaf recoilles rifle, and a 50-caliber machine gun. We also watched an artillery battery simulate a mission.
When we first arrived, it was early afternoon. The sun was shining and with no wind, it was a warm, 60-degree day in February. When the sun went down, it was a completely different story. Temperatures quickly dropped into the 30s. Albert and I were staying in the 'transient' tent, along with a platoon of soldiers rotating out after a few weeks on the ground.
Inside the tent, while it was relatively warm, space was very limited. Each cot was separated by an inch or two, and let this be a lesson to all: if you find yourself in tent with a platoon of soldiers in Afghanistan, don't grab a spot near the tent's opening. From the time the lights went out at around 8:00 p.m., I was woken up probably 3-5 times per hour by someone ripping open the velcro to exit the tent. That sound was accompanied each time by a rush of cold air from the outside.
It's safe to say, I didn't get much sleep. Also playing a factor, from the time the sun went down until the moon got bright, I can honestly say I've never seen the stars shine so brightly. It was a beautiful sight to see in the middle of a war zone.
The next morning, the valley was clear and crisp. You could now see snow-capped mountains in every direction, mountains that had been hidden by a haze the day before. With a few hours before our ride home arrived, we saw Afghan sheep herders roaming the valley, a family walking on the road, and far off in the distance, a group of kids playing soccer on a dirt field.
All in all, my 24 hours at OP Mad Dog was a great experience. The soldiers from the 4-25 were incredibly welcoming and accommodating. It was exactly what I imagined the War in Afghanistan to look and feel like. While I felt safe hidden within the walls of OP Mad Dog, the reality that you're surrounded by an unknown number of ISIS and Taliban fighters who want you dead, is a bit unsettling. I'm glad I went, and have a new respect for the men and women who spend their tour in the Mohmand Valley.