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Afghan soldiers climb peak to jet crash site

By Sgt. 1st Class Mack Davis

KABUL, Afghanistan (Army News Service, Feb. 14, 2005) - An Afghan Army team, with the help of U.S. advisors, climbed to the peak of an 11,000-foot mountain last week in an attempt to rescue victims of the worst air disaster in the nation's history, the crash of a Kam Air plane Feb. 4 carrying 104 people.

An International Security Assistance Force first made a number of unsuccessful rescue attempts by helicopter, but these were hampered by weather. Then Afghanistan called on its national Army.

The crash site was on the peak of Chaperi Mountain, 20 miles east of Kabul. The mission assigned to the Afghan National Army was to traverse the opposite side of Chaperi from where the crash occurred to attempt to reach the summit and locate any survivors.

At Pol-e-Charkhi, where the ANA's Central Corps soldiers are based, Lt. Col. Kabuly Qadeer, commander of 2nd Kandak (Battalion) 3rd Brigade, quickly gathered his soldiers, mounted vehicles, and prepared to head to the Chenari Village at the base of the mountain.

Alongside the ANA were U.S. Embedded Tactical Trainers. The team's commander, Lt. Col. Gordon Johnson Jr., South Carolina Army National Guard, said their mission is to support the ANA in any situation that develops.

The ANA rapidly responded to the order and headed for the base of the Chaperi Mountain. There, the 2nd Kandak and the U.S. advisors set up a command center to coordinate between ISAF and the Central Corps Headquarters at Pol-e-Charkhi.

First, the ANA set up two check points leading into the area. The recovery team needed to limit the number of people around the crash site.

Next, Qadeer accompanied 40 of his ANA soldiers aboard a BMP-1 (Armored Personal Carrier) and an elder from the local village to use as a guide in a rescue attempt. Qadeer, who is a seasoned mountain fighter, was familiar with the terrain.

The team departed the base camp around 1 p.m. on Sunday. The ANA soldiers, without any type of special climbing gear, were able to reach half way up the 3300 meter mountain by dusk in the difficult weather. The Afghan Army soldiers had to halt operations due to another snow storm but were able to find one of many caves to hunker down in for the night.

Qadeer returned with half of the soldiers on the BMP-1 back down the mountain to give a situation report to the command center, and to collect more supplies. The cave provided shelter for the soldiers who remained behind; however, according to the ANA troops, they had to burn two of their sleeping bags to generate some heat. The soldiers said once they got the cave warm, body heat kept them comfortable.

Once Qadeer returned off the mountain and arrived to the command center, he met with his staff and Johnson. In the command center, Qadeer and Johnson discussed how the first attempt to ascend the mountain was going. Qadeer was very optimistic saying, "The climb is going good, and we had to stop because of the snow. I will get my men some more equipment and supplies and head out again in the morning."

Johnson, who had received an update from ISAF, explained to Qadeer that ISAF was planning to fly a Slovenian mountain rescue team onto the mountain.

The two of them, along with other 2nd Kandak staff, reviewed the plan for Monday. While conducting the briefing, Johnson told them "The eyes of the world are watching the ANA on this mission. And the army is showing the Afghan people that they are able to serve them in many situations."

Packed and ready to go, the team departed the base camp at 7 a.m., with fresh clothes, carrying extra food and water.

The ANA team was able to reach an area of the summit within five hours and rejoin the second half of its team who had continued their mission the same morning.

U.S. advisor Capt. Benjamin Dunn, South Carolina Army National Guard, said: "I am really impressed with these guys. The way they persevered up the mountain without special climbing gear is remarkable, and they are getting the job done."

The soldiers probed the snow with climbing sticks in hopes of finding some remnants of the wreckage. Because the snow was over chest high and the ANA was not equipped with any type of global positioning devices, locating the main crash site was difficult.

ISAF was able to get an aircraft up that morning and with a team of Slovenian Mountain rescue members, located the site and determined that no one had survived the crash.

Due to severe weather, the ISAF members had to leave the mountain.

The team of Afghan soldiers were within 100 meters of the crash site when a severe storm warning was issued from the command center. The ANA team was going to spend Monday night on the mountain and await medical teams that hoped to arrive the following morning to recover the crash victims, according to Gen. Mohammed Zahir Azimi, Ministry of Defense spokesperson.

But the ANA Central Corps commander, who knew of the storm's approach and was concerned with his Soldiers' safety, ordered a return to base camp.

As the ANA made their way down, the weather continued to deteriorate rapidly. There was concern the solders would not make it down fast enough and might need to be rescued themselves.

The ANA Soldiers were able to make it back ahead of the storm, though, bringing with them valuable information needed for the recovery of victims. According to Johnson, "the speed and audacity in which the ANA operated on this mission would be impressive to any nation's army."

ISAF began phase 2 of the operation, which was planning recovery. But, the snow had continued and fog covered the mountainside hampering flying operations.

The ANA adjusted its operation and is standing by to assist in the recovery, continuing to provide security to the area and conducting checkpoint operations.

Qadeer told the soldiers of the 2nd Kandak, "The people of Afghanistan are proud of you! You were given a mission to deploy; set up check points, set up a command center, and climb to the crash site to support a rescue mission and you completed the mission. I thank you all."

(Editor's note: Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Mack Davis serves with Office of Military Cooperation - Afghanistan. Maj. Eric Bloom, Okalahoma Army National Guard, assisted with this article.

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