Unit boss recalls tense times in Afghanistan

Posted Jan. 06, 2011, at 9:45 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 7:17 a.m.

Two months after arriving at Combat Outpost Dand Wa Patan, in Paktia Province, Afghanistan, a platoon of soldiers from Brewer’s Bravo Company was ambushed while out on patrol.

The Maine infantrymen were able to contact their outpost to say they were in trouble, but then radio contact was lost, and all the company commander, Capt. Paul Bosse of Auburn, could do was wait with bated breath.

“I was trying to stay calm,” he recalled Wednesday.

Bosse was only a mile or so away from where his men were taking enemy fire, but there was little he could do except wait with fellow 3rd Battalion, 172nd Mountain Infantry soldiers who were listening on the post’s radios for any word.

“I thought I had a platoon that was getting decimated,” the 37-year-old commander said. “All of us were kind of tense. It was about another 10 minutes before I heard from them. Once they came back up on the [communications] net, I breathed a sigh of relief, as you can imagine.”

Those 10 minutes — until he was sure that none of his men had been killed — were Bosse’s scariest during the 172nd’s nine months in the overseas war zone, where the unit’s job was to patrol the dangerous Afghanistan-Pakistan border and provide security for the nearby border crossing point.

The 152 Brewer-based Army National Guard soldiers who left Vacationland in December 2009 arrived in Afghanistan as active duty soldiers in March 2010 to serve with the 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team out of Vermont.

Every single one of Bosse’s soldiers returned home in late November or early December, and they will be honored at 2 p.m. Friday in Orono for their service at a Freedom Salute ceremony, which is their formal welcome home.

Gov. Paul LePage, U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and other dignitaries are scheduled to be on hand at the Collins Center for the Arts at the University of Maine to say thank you to the state’s only infantry unit, whose men left their wives, children, friends and other family members to do what their country asked of them. The families will attend the public event as well and will be honored for providing support from home.

When B Company returned home a month ago, Maj. Gen. John “Bill” Libby, adjutant general of the Maine Army National Guard, Lt. Col. James “Jim” Campbell, executive officer for the 52nd Troop Command of the Maine Army National Guard, and others described Dand Wa Patan as one of the most dangerous places on Earth. All praised the infantrymen for a job well done.

“It was a very difficult mission for them, and for all to come home safe is amazing,” Command Sgt. Maj. Terry Harris, the senior enlisted solider for the Maine Army National Guard, said in November.

The 172nd’s tour in Afghanistan was the second time in recent years that Bravo Company was deployed into a war zone. The unit, along with Bosse, went to Iraq in 2006-07 and lost two soldiers during its time there. Bosse assumed command of B Company in February 2009.

“I thought we were going to lose more just because of the nature of the mission” in Afghanistan, he recalled this week. “That is what I really thought.”

Bosse said that other U.S. soldiers fighting in other parts of Afghanistan faced tougher obstacles and had more confrontations with al-Qaida and Taliban forces.

“Certainly where we were was a close second,” he said. “It was dangerous.”

Even with bullets flying by and the unpleasant living conditions, his men surged on and never let up, Bosse said.

Dand Wa Patan borders the Kurram tribal region of Pakistan and securing the Kurram Valley meant preventing foreign fighters from infiltrating with weapons and illicit materials, he said.

Patrolling the region resulted in sometimes intense combat between his troops and Taliban and al-Qaida forces, Bosse said.

“In July, they were in contact almost every other day,” he said.

Their job never got any easier. The attacks continued into August and into September, and a 4½-hour battle took place near the village of Sultak on Oct. 14, a month before the Maine soldiers began returning home.

After getting pinned down, the U.S. troops went on the offensive and “we Fwere the ones dishing out the punishment that day,” Bosse said. “Winning is pretty exhilarating.”

Many of the battles took place at small makeshift observation posts, or OPs, set up to keep an eye on the enemy in valleys in the region.

“I think one of the things I was most proud of is the independent OPs,” he said. “I had junior leaders up there really operating above their pay grade, and doing the right thing.”

The OPs were not luxury suites. They were built of sandbags, wood and whatever the soldiers could find and were put together with their sweat. Bosse’s men rotated in and out of the OPs, dealing with crude outhouses, fleas and rats.

“It was hard on them,” he said. “It wasn’t easy living, and these guys did it. They did it honorably. It was a point of pride for them that they lived hard.”

The OPs were only about four or so miles from the home base, but if one came under fire, it was up to the soldiers manning it to defend themselves, the unit commander said.

“Out there they’re independent,” Bosse said. “It’s the sergeants making it happen.”

The soldiers who took leadership roles to ensure the safety of their brothers-in-arms learned the meaning of service, Bosse said proudly.

“It was great seeing them grow — seeing 22- and 23-year-old kids taking on this responsibility,” he added. “I shouldn’t call them kids. I mean men.”

While the time in country was tough, there were always soldiers like Lt. Kyle McCrum and Pvt. Ed Boyce to keep the mood light and provide the men with a little comic relief, Bosse said.

McCrum did impressions and Boyce was known for his impromptu video commercials, advertising the different brands of water supplied to the troops, Bosse said.

While everyone made it home, four 172nd soldiers were injured in Afghanistan while protecting its borders, one seriously enough that he returned to the United States in May so he could be treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Spc. Andrew Chic, 23, of Hampden was injured when the mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle, or MRAP, he was the gunner on was hit by enemy fire.

“A rocket-propelled grenade went right through the front windshield,” Campbell said. “They were on a mail run, and the back of the vehicle was loaded with packages and mail. The packages from home absorbed the impact of the grenade” and lessened Chic’s injuries.

Chic suffered wounds to his face and neck but is back on duty. Two others in Chic’s MRAP and another soldier injured at another time were treated for their injuries in Afghanistan, Campbell said.

The unit’s mission would not have been a success without its mortar unit, which Bosse doubled from a six-man section to a dozen, and the forward observers, or FOs.

“My FOs and my mortars killed a bunch of bad guys,” he said. “Even though they had mortars, they were just not as well-trained as mine, and we crushed them. This is what turns the tide. This is what makes it not fair and we win. I think every man in the company would agree with that.”

Having both short- and long-range mortars and a portable 60 mm unit that went every where Bravo Company went “gave me flexibility,” Bosse said.

In addition to his own artillery and manpower, the Brewer company commander also got help from other U.S. forces in the area.

“Our ability to use indirect fire and coordinate assistance” such as an Air Force jet, or Army helicopter, “that is the way you have to fight in Afghanistan, especially in the mountains,” he said.

The leadership and coping skills his men learned while under fire and stress are what they brought home with them, and Bosse said he hopes they will use them to benefit their country.

“I think people who have had those experiences know what’s good and bad for American,” he said. “I expect some to be future Ph.D.s and members of Congress. I expect them to make it into something positive.

“They’ve earned the right to have good, productive lives,” Bosse said. “Make it something positive.”