US Troops Risk Their Lives to Build a Road in Northern Afghanistan at the 'Tip of the Spear'

PHOTO: US Troops Risk Their Lives to Build a Road in Northern Afghanistan at the Tip of the Spear
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We're at the "Tip of the Spear." Forward Operating Base Bostick is a remote United States military base located in mountainous northern Afghanistan. Troops stationed here can see Pakistan, marked by a snow-topped mountain, in the distance.

"There's nothing between you and the enemy," said Sgt. 1st Class Gregory Artise.

Each morning, the men and women of the 2-27 Infantry -- the Wolfhounds -- prepare for their day. Regardless of the pending plans for America's longest war that will come from Washington, D.C., the work and the fight in this part of the world feel far from over.

More than 10 years after the 9/11 terror attacks, this war is now being waged by soldiers who were in grade school at the time.

Capt. Matthew Schachman is now 28. On 9/11 he was a teenager focused on hockey, which gave him an in at West Point. This is his second deployment in four years, and Forward Operating Base Bostick is home. His wife, Laurie, back in the states, sends him care packages filled with cookies, cashews and high-quality coffee. Schachman said she knew what she was getting into when she married him.

"When I first met Laurie, the first movie I ever watched with her was 'We Were Soldiers' because a second lieutenant with a new baby gets killed," he told us. "I tried to scare her away and it didn't work."

The couple now has two little girls, Ainsley, who is not yet 3, and Scarlett, not yet 1, whom Schachman only got to see during the first few days of her life.

"She won't remember that I was gone," he said. "I think Ainsley might. It's hard. For Ainsley, when I first left, you can tell. She still remembers me but you kind of tell it's not quite the same. It was right before I left but I will get home and give her the tickle hand and I think it will all key back in."

The troops of the 2-27 have been away from their families for six months. They have been focused on Operation Rugged Serak -- which means "road." A road they are charged with securing and paving. Until recently, the Taliban has been known to post illegal checkpoints on one particular four-mile section, the Ghaziabad Pass.

The Wolfhounds hope the road will become a lifeline for the local community, creating economic opportunity and connecting them to their government.

But even a short ride on the road, just a half mile, means massive security precautions. The drive is made inside Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) armored vehicles.

"In the event that we take casualties, anyone who is able is going to help treat," said acting commander Maj. Dominick Edwards.

The road has already been costly. The troops there know that every day they could pay for this path of rock and dirt with their lives. Eight members of the Wolfhounds have been killed since the battalion arrived in May, with one killed just a few days before we arrived.

"It's just very difficult," Edwards said. "You run through a wide range of emotions. You're sad. You are very angry. Part of you wants revenge, part of you wants, you know -- there's guys who say, 'Why are we here?' You question that."

The soldiers make trips to meet with the locals, some of whom discussed the positive impact the road has made on them.

"It's good to have you here," said police chief Haji Yusef, speaking through a translator. "The more security we accept, the more development will come up here."

Back on base, Schachman met with a local contractor working on the road, who has finally been able to travel it in order to get paid.

"I know every day hasn't been easy, but you guys have hung in there and with everything that's been going on and helping with the road," Schachman told him.

2nd Lt. Lauren Lucky brought the contractor his pay in stacks of Afghanis - worth $69,952 U.S. dollars. A lot of money, but nothing compared to the cost illustrated a few feet away on the Wolfhound Heroes Wall, a wall full of names and pictures of those who have died.

The next name to be added will be Sgt. Houston Taylor, who was killed on Oct. 13 in an intense battle that was part of Operation Rugged Sarak. Capt. Tim Blair, who was also involved in the firefight, was the commander of the first four Wolfhounds killed. Their MRAP vehicle was blown up by an IED, which Blair said he was later told was intended for a different vehicle -- his.

Schachman said he remembers the bodies coming back to base after it happened.

"There is that split second that you are happy" that it wasn't you, he admitted, that it's "not your wife and kids, and then you feel like a horrible person because you thought that, and then you think about their family."

The motto of the Wolfhounds: "No fear on Earth." In this valley, the Wolfhounds and their Afghan Army counterparts are inviting targets to the enemy. In recent months, enemy fire on the base has killed four Afghan troops and wounded 20 others.

The Arab Spring, the death of Osama bin Laden, all of that seems so far away at Forward Operating Base Bostick, where concerns are more parochial. It is for the road that these men and women risk their lives and for the road that they are far away from their loved ones.

Edwards said he recently apologized to his wife and three kids for having gone a few weeks without calling them. He was in the thick of Operation Rugged Serak.

"My son Josh just laughed and said, 'Tell Dad, don't worry about it. He's fighting a war. He needs to worry about the guys and bringing them home,'" Edwards said. "They remember going to funerals and memorial services since they were in the first grade."

Given the loss of life and separation from his family, the fact that eight Wolfhounds have been killed so far, a ninth committed suicide, and still others might fall, is building the road worth it?

"It's difficult to put a value on the loss of a father or a husband or someone's son or daughter," Edwards said. "I think the biggest thing is you want to make sure their sacrifice was not in vain. We are making progress and we are making a difference and I think that helps us resolve it a bit, but it's still very difficult and I don't know if it's going to be worth it. Time will tell, ultimately."

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