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Paratroopers remain vigilant along Afghanitan's Highway 1

May 2, 2012

By Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod

FORWARD OPERATING BASE ARIAN, Afghanistan -- Sgt. 1st Class Scott Shepro believes the men of his platoon are read for the fight here in Ghazni province.

"Of course, they could always be more ready -- everybody could," says the six-foot Alaskan who runs 2nd Platoon, Charlie Company.

His platoon is tasked with providing additional security for the engineers of his unit, the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team, while they search for roadside bombs and triggering wires along Afghanistan's main route between Kabul and Kandahar, Highway 1.

To outsiders, it may seem like a daunting task, but Shepro and his fellow paratroopers are trained for a broad range of missions.

It is springtime in Afghanistan, and it's been raining for a week. When the men mount up in their Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, they kick ankle-deep mud from their boots.

In Shepro's truck is Pfc. Thomas Almodovar, or "Almo." From Long Island, N.Y., he is the smallest and youngest of the bunch. He is the driver.

In back is the medic, Spc. Ramiro Bojorquez, or "Doc." Doc is Hispanic and comes from Arizona.

Next to Doc is a lanky Indiana farm boy, Spc. Ryan Robinson, or "Rob." His hand is on the joystick that controls the remote machine gun platform mounted on the top of the truck. Since this is the last truck in a combined patrol of U.S. and Afghan soldiers, Rob watches the convoy's "six" in the monitor before him.

Before they pull onto the highway, the platoon sergeant quizzes his men: how to react to contact, how to handle a rollover, what to do if they are hit by an improvised explosive device.

What do they do?

Stop the truck, assist casualties, report the situation by radio, defend against further attack.

"There's a lot of fear involved with IEDs," says Shepro. "I try to take emotion out of it whenever possible. We train constantly, and we tell them our own stories. I was wounded in an IED attack about five years ago in Iraq. I tell them exactly what happened, exactly what I saw, exactly what I dealt with."

In the four weeks since 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment arrived at Forward Operating Base Arian, they've had no IED encounters, but they see the evidence every time they roll out the gate.

Just past the first village, they come to a ragged crater in the pavement from a blast three weeks ago. Second platoon was the quick-response force the night insurgents tried to repack the hole with more homemade explosives, and he recalls how the Army's explosive ordnance experts were called to dispose of the material.

On the highway, Shepro's goal is to keep his paratroopers relaxed but vigilant.

"Since there's not a huge tactical risk or big movement piece for our platoon, my focus is to ensure the guys are looking out the windows, pulling security and have their eyes open for that unknown enemy that might be out there," he says.

In the meantime, light banter keeps the guys calm.

"Almo, after this deployment, you'll be qualified to drive a garbage truck," says Shepro. In fact, their massive MRAP is built on the frame of a dump truck.

Almo laughs. "I'd want to be the guy hanging off the back of the truck," he replies as a paratrooper would.

From the back, Rob says he wants to be a crane operator. "In 2004 they were getting $84 an hour."

"I want to discover oil," Almo says.

"I don't know," says Shepro, looking out the window at his muddy world. "Oil is dirty."

Traffic is heavy with trucks, the commerce of an emerging Afghanistan. Every now and then, another bomb crater appears in the asphalt, forcing lanes in both directions to slow and thread a narrow gap around it.

"Making sure Highway 1 stays open is the lynchpin of this whole operation," Shepro says. "There's been a big deal made about it being the most dangerous route in the area, but with us running up and down it and the [surveillance] capabilities we have, I don't see it being a huge risk. We drive up and down it everyday and there's tons of Afghan army and police.

"Now that we're here and setting the tone that we're not going to put up with that stuff, I think the threat is going to go down. That will play into the goals of the higher echelons of command when they talk about this being a clearing operation [in Ghazni] leading to our withdrawal. "

At a roadside bazaar, the troops dismount. The officer of the platoon, 2nd Lt. Anthony Pappas, arranges a quick meeting outside a shop with white-bearded village elders. There is chai tea and talk of how to keep the peace.

The Afghan National Army troops who are part of the patrol -- they are part of every patrol these days -- are spread across the bazaar. Some are pulling security while others talk to locals or search motorcycles and other vehicles for weapons and explosives.

"We've all been amazed at the progress that the ANA and ANP have shown since the last time most of us have been here," says Shepro. "We are pleasantly surprised, and we want to keep the momentum going in their growth as an organization, and for individual soldiers and policemen."

The goal is to create an environment where the ANA and ANP are bringing peace to their country without help from Coalition Forces, he said.

Further down the road, the patrol stops again so that Pappas can meet with the ANA commander of a checkpoint. While Shepro waits, the sergeant radios to his dismounted men to ask the Afghan soldiers in their patrol to stop and search all motorcycles. Two weeks earlier, another platoon found one packed with explosives.

It's Shepro's fourth deployment since he first came to Afghanistan in 2002. Any day now, he expects an email from his wife with news of their daughter's birth, a first child. Today might be the day.

Finally the patrol meets the engineers, finished and heading for home. Second platoon follows suit. There are no IEDs today.

"Everyday we leave this FOB, there are people out there trying to kill us," says Shepro. "That's why we must remain vigilant. We can't give them that chance. If they are going to take one of us, they are going to have a fight on their hands."




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