U.S. troops patrol on front line against terrorism

Thursday, September 12, 2002

BAGRAM, Afghanistan -- At first light Wednesday, Sgt. Dallas Donelson was out on the flight line as he is every day, preparing A-10 Thunderbolt jets for daily patrols, checking essential systems and loading weapons.

"Hopefully, we're going to get some of those guys today on the anniversary of what they did to us," said Donelson, a member of the ground crew that maintains the "Warthogs."

Hopes aside, the anniversary of last year's attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon is being treated mostly as just another day at Bagram Air Base, the U.S. military headquarters in Afghanistan.

The only ceremony at Bagram was a 20-minute memorial for a prayer, a moment of silence and the lowering of the flag -- timed to coincide with the moment the first plane hit the twin towers.

"Those of you who are here on this battlefield, you're the heroes and heroines of today, it is you who are relentlessly are taking this fight to the enemy, it is you to whom your nation owes its gratitude," Lt. Gen. Dan K. McNeill told the more than 200 soldiers who attended the ceremony.

"The war is not over, without doubt we are winning but we do not have it won," said McNeill, the top commander of the war in Afghanistan.

At the Kandahar Air Base in southern Afghanistan, a ceremony originally planned for 100 soldiers ballooned to 500, as soldiers rushed to end their daily tasks to attend the 30-minute memorial just off the base's main airstrip.

Many soldiers wiped tears from their eyes at the end of a moment of silence and later gathered around a bronze plaque honoring the fallen that is to remain in Kandahar.

Lt. Nicole Casanassima, 23, said the ceremony took on special meaning since she was a New York native. "I'm glad I'm here," she said. "I feel like I'm doing something to help."

Bagram base took no additional security measures ahead of the ceremony. "We think we already have the right systems in place," said Col. Roger King, a U.S. military spokesman at Bagram.

Shooting incident

However, there was a minor incident early Wednesday when a gunman fired at a guard tower on the northwestern edge of the sprawling base north of Kabul. American soldiers returned fire and wounded the gunman, who escaped and was taken to a hospital by local Afghans who found him, King said. Gates leading into the Bagram base were closed briefly after the incident.

The gunman was armed with a muzzle-loading, single-shot rifle, and he was reloading after his first shot when the soldiers wounded him, King said. Residents of nearby villages said the man, whose identity was not released, had been out hunting, King said. But the U.S. troops insisted he had pointed his weapon at them.

In southeast Afghanistan, one of the main fronts in the hunt for al-Qaida and Taliban remnants, two rockets were fired at the airport in Khost city, where U.S. troops are based. The rockets exploded in an open field at dawn just east of the airport, said Mohammad Khan Gorbuz, spokesman for the provincial governor.

At Bagram base, the business-as-usual approach to Sept. 11 was a decision made at the top. Many soldiers said they wanted it that way.

"Pursuing the war on the anniversary of the attack is what makes today a big day," said Lt. Col. Tim Strasburger, an A-10 pilot based at Pope Air Force Base outside Fayetteville, N.C. "There isn't a place I'd rather be or a job I'd rather be doing."

The A-10s are used to provide air cover for ground troops.

About a mile along the flight line, more than 100 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division practiced loading and deploying from the back of a Chinook helicopter.

"A lot of us are thinking about it, but it's really just like any other day," said Pvt. Sean Bargmann, a 23-year-old from Gilman, Ill. "We've got to act like anything could happen today, because it could -- look at what happened this morning."

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