U.S. soldiers celebrate survival in Afghanistan

Easter: Amid surging violence, paratroopers share a sense of purpose, hope and family.

April 12, 2004|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SALERNO BASE, Afghanistan - They hung their assault rifles on nails and sang hymns in a chapel made of plywood and canvas. Outside, the assistant chaplain had stuck white and yellow plastic flowers on a waist-high wall of sandbags.

This was Easter for members of the Army's 1st Battalion, 501st Airborne Infantry Regiment, engaged on the other, less-publicized war front - not in Iraq, but along Afghanistan's mountainous border with Pakistan. Salerno Base came under rocket attack Friday and again Saturday night as part of a recent surge in violence.

Emerging from Mass yesterday morning, Capt. Jonathan Chung, 27, of Poquoson, Va., said he felt particularly grateful this Easter. He commands B Company, which was ambushed twice last week with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic rifle fire.

It was the first time his unit had operated near the Pakistani border, he said, and the first time that one of his patrols had drawn fire. His company responded with mortars, grenades and heavy machine-gun fire.

"We were able to take control of the situation and bring the boys home," said Chung. "In my book, that's a special Easter. After what we've gone through in the past 72 hours, the sense of family in our company is a lot stronger."

For almost 30 years after the Vietnam War, paratroopers with the airborne battalion were stationed near Anchorage, Alaska, waiting to be called if tensions in Korea escalated into war. That never happened. But in October, the battalion was ordered to Afghanistan's border with Pakistan. The 501st, with 1,000 paratroopers, immediately moved to reopen the lawless Khost-Gardez pass and began regular patrols of isolated tribal areas.

Osama bin Laden had a home in Khost and built a mosque there. Warlords in the area continue to defy Kabul's authority.

The presence of U.S. troops "is driving al-Qaida and the Taliban crazy," said Maj. Val Keaveny of Bremerton, Wash., because it has made recruiting more difficult. That, he said, has led them to stage largely ineffectual hit-and-run assaults. "The plan we have for them is to destroy them when they come out and show themselves."

But the recent attacks have also tested Americans here. Chaplain James "Brad" Lee, 34, of English, Ind., said he has had to start helping soldiers come to terms with "shooting at people and getting shot at."

Usually, Protestant services here draw about 35 worshipers. About 50 crowded into the makeshift chapel yesterday, with some sitting on boxes and others squatting on the floor.

Lee, an ordained minister of the Nazarene Church, conducted part of the service from an electric piano, where he led choruses of a gospel hymn that declared: "Alive, alive, alive! My Jesus is alive!"

Lee invited worshipers to offer prayers. A soldier in B Company gave thanks "that our enemies are such poor shots."

When Spc. Paul Riley, 21, joined the task force a couple of years ago, other paratroopers warned that he would never be deployed, much less see combat. Yesterday, in a brief ceremony outside the Salerno operations center, he became the first in the battalion to receive a Purple Heart since the Vietnam era.

On April 1, as he was leaving a village searched by his platoon, Riley was shot in the left hip by a sniper.

"I figured it couldn't have been serious, since I wasn't dead," Riley said. The attacker fled. Doctors left the bullet in Riley's hip, and he remains on crutches. He hopes to be back on patrol by the end of the month. The only thing that has changed, he said, is that "I'm a bit more suspicious of Afghans."

The Rev. Alberto Pagan, 41, of Lares, Puerto Rico, said it was an Easter like none other. The night before, after offering Mass in Spanish, he had been rousted from his tent by rocket attacks - and spent an hour in body armor, waiting for the all-clear.

"I think I found more spiritual meaning" in Easter this year, he said. "It's a celebration that means family. And this is my new family now. We're a family because we share the same position, the same struggle and the same hope."

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