Dispatches From Zambar, Afghanistan

The slop tasted good. Spam cubed with a jack knife, rice, Ramen noodles and a cup of chicken soup, dumped in a steel pot and cooked on a gas burner, until the ingredients reach the right temperature: hot.

The sun slunk back behind the snow-capped mountains to the west. The temperature dropped faster. Delta Company, a light infantry unit farmed out to the 82nd Airborne's Second battalion Airborne field artillery regiment, had seized a compound in this hostile village of seemingly identical mud-brick compounds.

Just a few miles away are the remnants of the training camp in which Muhammad Atta and other 9/11 hijackers trained. Also nearby is Osama bin Laden's training camp, Al Masadah, or the Lion's Den, where he gained fame in 1988 following a bloody battle with the Soviets.

The men of this platoon, infantry men all, accustomed to eating battle rations and sleeping in sub-zero temperatures for months on end, had come looking for a fight. Now they were just trying to get warm. They greedily slurped down Sgt. Rodolfo "Marty" Martinez's slop from the battle rations bag they had sliced in half and used as a bowl.

It was the first hot meal in a couple of days, and they were grateful to eat something other than battle rations.

Their Humvees were stuffed with thousands of rounds of ammunition. Gunners manned the cannon-ike .50 cal machine guns. And behind each gunner was a LAW anti-tank missile.

But five days in and they had not fired a shot.

They rumbled into this village as part of a mile-long convoy that ferried in the first coalition troops this town had seen in a year. This was the biggest mission of their 15-month deployment with more than 850 American and Afghan troops involved. The operation was set to last 30 days, with the troops searching each house twice.

Zambar had become this province's insurgent stronghold, home to bomb makers and dispatchers of suicide bombers. They received their orders from insurgent networks inside Pakistan.

At the opening of the offensive, U.S. Special Forces along with the Afghan commandos swooped in and arrested six targets. These were the deputies of insurgent leaders Gulbudin Hekmatyar and Sarraj Hakkani, each with their own insurgent network.

Delta Company was left with the clean-up job. Its members are used to it. They've spent the bulk of their year in Afghanistan out on patrol, sleeping in the dirt as they set up one district police station after another in this province, only to see other troops move in once running water, electricity and four walls are set up .

Yet despite all the ammo and adrenaline, their mission started with a knock. Along with a detachment of the Afghan Police, they knocked on doors, then gingerly searched homes. The work is gruelling and unglamorous. The men proclaim they'd much rather shoot at insurgents. Although some, like the driver of my Humvee, Sgt. Ian Hunter, will say "we were trained to fight, but after a while bullets spitting up at you all the time can get a little tiresome." Hunter lost five friends this year in battle.

The men of this platoon are a motley crew. And young. The extended deployments in combat zones have whittled down the number of troops willing to re-enlist. With so many slots open, promotions come fast these days. The leader of the Humvee I rode in was a gruff 22-year-old sergeant from California. His webbing stuffed with ammo and grenades, and with eye protection on, Sgt. Bob Rabp looks pretty tough. But when he takes off his sooty cammo bandana and helmet, a carefully cultivated tuft of blond hair springs up. He looks like any other California boy.

Our driver, another sergeant, is something of a thinker who dropped out of college. Hunter speaks deliberately, with a slight Maine twang. The man behind the .50 cal machine gun is an Indiana farm boy, who totes around the baggage of a rough childhood and a scar on his forehead as a memento of those days. Specialist Brian McNabney became something of a small-time construction mogul out of high school but chose to defy his family and wife and joined the 82nd, specifically to fight in Afghanistan. "I don't care about Iraq," he says.

The platoon calls itself the bastard child of this battalion. They are an infantry unit. The battalion is mainly composed of artillery men or support and logistics troops.

But nearly to a man, they accept their somewhat ignoble fate. Those, like Hunter, who remain married through the rapid-fire deployments they've been sent on in recent years, including two stints in Afghanistan and one in Iraq, say their marriages are coming apart from time spent away. Paranoia of spousal infidelity trails these men everywhere like a loyal dog.

Yet, they believe in what they are doing. And despite the drudgery and some moderate griping they prefer being here in the wilderness to living on a base where there are amenities like toilets. They satisfy one of the few maxims of the military, each soldier feels disdain toward the troops one base to the rear or more.

The men of Delta Company out here in Zambar will spend the next three months watching the first tendrils of government take root in this lawless town. They'll oversee and secure the construction of the local district center and a couple of police stations. Zambar's first-ever road will be put down, as will dams, and who knows, maybe they will even bring electricity to this town.

And just as the work is finished sometime in late March, it will be time for them to move on. This time, though, their destination will be home.

After a few months of hot meals, toilets and king-size pillow-top mattresses, they'll likely miss Sgt. Martinez's slop.

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