WATERLOO - A tale of courage under fire has been received out of Afghanistan involving soldiers of the Waterloo-headquartered Iowa Army National Guard battalion.
Members of the Guard's 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment - the "Ironman Battalion" - lived up to their nickname in the recapture of the Afghan town of Do Ab, Nuristan province, in heavy fighting with entrenched Taliban insurgents on May 25.
After being pinned down for more than an hour by unrelenting mortar and machine gun fire in an exposed helicopter landing zone, the soldiers fought their way to a livestock compound that offered a defensible position.
They provided cover fire for a second wave mainly made up of friendly Afghan forces. Supported by assault helicopters and Air Force fighter jets, they drove off the enemy and retook Do Ab, a governmental center similar to a county seat, according to soldiers' accounts.
The 60-soldier force - 42 "Ironmen" and 18 Afghan nationals - sustained no casualties while killing more than 100 Taliban.
While the 1/133rd, part of the 34th "Red Bull" infantry division, has seen combat throughout its eight months in Afghanistan, the May 25 operation was the heaviest fighting experienced to date.
It was one of the "most significant engagements the Red Bull has been involved in since World War II," Guard spokesman Maj. Mike Wunn in Afghanistan said.
"We had many points through the day where luck was on our side. Our guys did an outstanding job, which led to all of us coming home," added 1/133rd battalion commander Lt. Col. Steven Kremer of Cherokee.
"It's just amazing to me, it's unbelievable everyone came out," Kremer said.
The soldiers were members of the 1/133rd's headquarters and headquarter company, as well as Charlie Company, and the battalion mortar and sniper teams. The sniper team was headed by Staff Sgt. Jeremy Buhr of Waverly.
Intelligence reports indicated the reinforced Taliban had seized Do Ab. The 1/133rd's mission, Kremer said, was to assess the enemy strength and determine how large a force would be needed to deal with the insurgents. The Guardsmen flew in on two Chinook helicopters in a fairly confined landing zone, the only flat area in the rough terrain around Do Ab.
They discovered the enemy strength soon after landing. Guard 1st Lt. Justin Foote of New Hartford, formerly of Evansdale, 1/133rd reconnaissance platoon leader, said an air burst from an enemy rocket-propelled grenade exploded over one of the Chinooks as it took off, and the fight was on.
"The whole (landing zone) erupted into fire," Foote said. "From every point of high ground, from every piece of defensible fighting position the enemy were in, it pretty much rained down - all types of weapons, small arms fire, machine gun fire, RPG fire and enemy mortar rounds."
Soldiers would take cover behind rocks for protection, only to be subjected to fire from another angle. "You were taking fire from pretty much every direction," Foote said.
The experienced Taliban were dug in up to their chests in the rocky fortifications. The two Chinooks had landed 300 meters apart, under such withering fire it took the Ironmen an hour to consolidate their divided force.
Noncommissioned officers moved back and forth in the open, exposed to enemy fire, to coordinate their soldiers' efforts. But the Ironmen, at this point in their deployment, know their jobs well in such situations, said Maj. Aaron Baugher of Ankeny, senior ground force commander during the operation, and Sgt. Edward Kane of Portland, Ore., an interstate transfer soldier serving with the 1/133rd.
The Ironmen mortar and sniper squads and supporting Black Hawk assault helicopters laid down suppressing fire on the north side of the landing zone. That allowed the entire force to finally move to defensible positions. The Black Hawks also sustained heavy damage from the Taliban fire, but survived the fight.
The force leaders on the ground decided to head for the shelter of the compound of defensible livestock buildings rather than take a narrow and exposed road directly into Do Ab, especially after a friendly Afghan police force the Guardsmen were to meet up with did not show.
With the assistance of Air Force personnel, the soldiers called in F-15 and F-16 fighters which dropped 500-pound bombs on the enemy positions - some within 200 meters of their own. Apache helicopter gunships also arrived to help take out the Taliban positions.
When more Chinooks arrived with additional Guardsman and Afghan nationals, the Ironmen already on the ground provided covering fire. When a thunderstorm prevented additional troops from being brought in, the decision was made to move into Do Ab under cover of night.
"We own the night," Kane said.
The Ironmen and their Afghan allies had moved into Do Ab by sunrise, which comes at about 2:30 to 3 a.m. there. By that time the Taliban had sustained enough casualties they had withdrawn from Do Ab. The Ironmen eventually made contact with the Afghan police. Do Ab was deserted upon their arrival, but within four days of retaking the center, children could be seen playing in the street again.
Kremer noted the entire battalion was involved in supporting their comrades in the field at Do Ab, gathering and flying in ammunition and supplies throughout the operation, among other tasks.
Guard soldiers once took supporting roles in previous deployments. But Kremer said the engagement at Do Ab illustrates that the Guard troops can perform alongside their active-duty counterparts, and his citizen soldiers are well suited to the task of winning the peace as well as the war by rebuilding the Afghan community.
"We do everything the active duty Army normally does - combined action with local military, Afghan national army, Afghan national police - we're out doing everything they do," Kremer said. "Government development, security - we're doing it all. And we bring a certain skill set, because back home we're school teachers, and police officers, firefighters, and carpenters. We understand community relationships."
The "Ironmen" said they may be back in Iowa in about six weeks.
Pat Kinney is a reporter for the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, a Lee Enterprises newspaper.