Friday, August 29, 2014

JBER Airman recalls battle

by Chris McCann
JBER Public Affairs

8/29/2014 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- It was 4:19 a.m. July 17 when the first rocket-propelled grenades came into Forward Operating Base Oqab.

Air Force Capt. Adam Phillips, commander of the 43 Airmen of the defense forces at the FOB, was asleep - as were many of the defenders not on shift, given the hour. Those standing guard in the towers around the base were joined by Airmen dressed in whatever they wore to bed; T-shirts, flip-flops and gym shorts were the uniform of the hour. One, Senior Airman Julian Rangel, was in "a tank top, gym shorts and his Vans," Phillips said. "He was the main gunner on one QRF."

The defenders dispatched two quick-reaction forces. The enemy fire was coming from a high-rise complex just outside the Kandahar International Airport. The QRFs moved to the Afghan Air Force base next to Oqab, linked up with the Afghans, and coordinated their fields of fire.

The enemy forces were in a building, 300 meters away, just outside the FOB.

The KAIA North Operations Center was coordinating for air support for the troops.

"We checked on the guys in the towers on the FOB," Phillips said. Fortunately there were no casualties but one moment looked particularly bad.

"I was up in tower 2, and one of our senior noncommissioned officers was in tower 3," he recalled. "A round looked like it hit tower 3, and we had a handful of guys in there."

The RPG missed the tower, hitting an Afghan Air Force communications building - luckily empty of people. Still, adrenaline ran high.

"It's not that I wasn't worried," he said. "People getting shot at and shooting back is [worrisome]. But I'd dealt with stressful situations at [Bagram Air Field] and when it happens, we just work. You have the [adrenaline] dump later."

The firefight raged for more than two hours and included suicide bombers and a vehicle-borne IED detonated near one of the entry control points, but there were no coalition injuries.

"Not a scratch," Phillips said. "It was really wild. Nobody was hit, nobody was nicked."
They had a cease-fire at 6:15 a.m., but had to hold their ground for the next three hours. A sweeping force, made up of Marines and Afghan air commandos, was just outside the base, clearing the buildings the enemy had been in, as the defenders could not leave FOB Oqab unmanned. They remained on standby.

Phillips coordinated recovery of the unexploded ordnance with a French explosive ordnance disposal team.

"It was pretty wild," he said. "A two-hour firefight in this career field never happens."
The biggest takeaway for his Airmen, he said, was the value of training.

"The training kicked in and everything came together," he said. "There's no litmus test for it except in battle."

Some had complained about losing time off for training.

"It takes time," Phillips said. "But after that, they were saying 'I'm really glad I had all that training.' People were prepared; they probably didn't realize how well prepared until they had to use it."

One of the most important outcomes was the improvement in the Afghan troops, he said.
"The Afghan Security Forces guys engaged in the coordinated effort of the defensive line," he said. "They helped hold the line."

About five months prior, Phillips' team had created a train-the-trainer course for their Afghan counterparts for using the M240B machine gun. They were resistant, preferring their Russian-made PK machine guns which were lighter.

The two-hour skirmish, however, seemed to change their minds.

"Independently - and this is huge - they got the 240s through their supply line, trained their soldiers to use them, and got them out on the line," Phillips said. "It was a great success; we didn't have to tell them to do it. The stuff we'd done five months ago all came together.

"In the two weeks before I left, all the advising we'd done for the last year finally clicked. Stuff's working."

Phillips, a native of Fuquay-Varina, N.C., is leaving the Air Force after almost seven years of service. He plans to stay in Alaska and go back to school to get a degree in outdoor education.

"I want to do an outdoor rehab program for troubled youth," he said.

His first degree, in criminal justice, led him to join Air Force Security Forces - and it set him up for such an endeavor.

"Even as an officer, I still deal with base and society problems," he said. "I have a love of the outdoors and teaching skills that can help [youth]. I still want to help people, just not in a law-enforcement capacity."

Working closely with the Afghans also was helpful.

"It taught me the virtue of patience," he said. "You work so hard to get a small gain, but even a small gain is a big improvement."

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