Written by Sgt. 1st Class Stephanie Carl
159th Combat Aviation Brigade Public Affairs
Battle Position Osman, Zabul Province, Afghanistan – The melody of a flute drifts over on the wind from the room in the compound their Afghan National Police partners call home. All of the men wear the evidence of days of enduring the sandblasts of southern Afghanistan’s summer winds.
In fighting positions around the compound, a few other Pathfinders and Afghans maintain a security watch, keeping a close eye out for any suspicious movement that could be a threat to the position, the villagers nearby or, more importantly, Forward Operating Base Wolverine, the group’s home base that sits just a few miles away.“This is what the infantry does and trains for,” said Capt. Mark A. Herlick, the commander of Company F, Task Force Wings (4th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment). “We seize and hold terrain, and deny the enemy the ability to influence local populations.”
The main doctrinal mission of the Pathfinders is to provide personnel recovery assets to the aviation brigade they support – in this case Task Force Thunder (159th Combat Aviation Brigade).
Here in Zabul province, however, they’ve taken things a bit further.
The Pathfinders based at Forward Operating Base Wolverine established Battle Position Osman nearly two months ago, looking to provide more security to the FOB that isn’t supported by any other maneuver element.
“No one’s gonna come to our rescue,” said Lt. Col. Christopher Albus, the Task Force Wings commander, as he evaluated BP Osman’s impact on security in the region.
Since the establishment of the BP in the Suri District of Zabul, attacks in the region have been cut in half, said Capt. Marisa Touw, the Task Force Wings intelligence officer. Additionally, there have been no [improvised explosive devices] along the main route through the district, which used be littered with the bombs.
The unit is taking the fight to the enemy, and they’re doing it in the name of a man who lived and breathed this philosophy.
BP Osman is named after the former platoon sergeant for the company’s Kandahar Detachment, Staff Sgt. Ergin V. Osman, who was killed in an IED blast in late May.
“Oz was all about taking the fight to the enemy, and doing this personifies his personality,” Herlick said.
The unit is doing more than just facing down the enemy on their turf, though. They are also ingraining themselves in the local populace, which is critical to their success in the area.
“We get a lot of recognition from the small villages,” said Sgt. Nathaniel Lee, a team leader at the battle position. “They really appreciate us being here. Insurgent activity has slowed or stopped.”
Herlick explained that this disruption of insurgent activity, which ruled the area with intimidation, means the villagers have freedom of movement they couldn’t previously enjoy. They’re now able to tend their livestock and harvest crops to feed the livestock during the winter months. Last year, this was out of the question. Any crops they did harvest were taxed heavily by insurgents.
As the Pathfinders built their presence in the Suri District, they’ve also built a rapport and trust with the villagers. Villagers have begun to provide information to the unit about IED emplacements, enemy spotters and enemy movement.
“These people find it hard to trust,” said Lee. “But they seem to be becoming more trusting in us.”
It’s not just the villagers trusting the unit – their leadership is also placing a great deal of trust in them.
As a maneuver element assigned to an aviation unit, the Pathfinders have a mission that entails a different, and in some ways greater, level of acceptable risk than battalion leaders are used to.
“Fortunately, I’ve got the latitude and the trust to maneuver my teams the way I need to,” Herlick said.
That trust comes from the top down, and it extends all the way to the lowest ranking soldier in Herlick’s formation.
“Operations at the BP aren’t driven top-down, they’re bottom-up,” he said. “My team leaders are making strategic decisions every day that are usually made at a much higher level. But they’re the guys on the ground, and they see what I can’t see if I’m not out here.”
This is one of the biggest reasons the Pathfinders have the trust of their battalion leadership, and it’s also one of the biggest ways they support the aviation mission.
“As aviators, those of us who’ve never been in combat – on the ground that is – don’t always see things the same way,” said Master Sgt. Terrence D. Reyes, the Task Force Wings operations NCO in charge. “The Pathfinders really help us take the ground picture and the air picture and put them together.”
This helps the aviation unit more effectively fill its role as a supporting element to ground units.
“What they’re doing at BP Osman has driven down IEDs and [troops in contact] in an area we used to get called to all the time,” Reyes said. “Now we can focus our air assets on supporting other areas in the region that need it.”
Just as the air assets are needed in other locations throughout Zabul province, the Pathfinders are also needed elsewhere. This is where their partnership with Afghan forces becomes critical. The Pathfinders are focused on making sure the Afghan National Police have the ability to sustain the progress that’s been made.
“The ANP are great partners,” Herlick said.
The Afghan forces face some logistical and manpower limitations, he explained, but they have the strategic ability and drive to make the mission successful.
“Many of our missions our missions are ANP planned and led,” he said. “We’re simply operating in a supporting role, and we do our best to support them without them coming to rely too heavily on us.”
As a result, the villagers have also come to trust the ANP.
“It helps that they see the ANP are out there 24 hours a day providing security for the villages,” Herlick said.
With this continued security, the villagers will have the ability meet their own goals.
“They just want to be able to live their lives,” Lee said. “They want to tend their crops and their livestock, and to be able to make money to take care of their families.”