Lt. Col. Keith Ensley

Medford soldiers back Afghans in firefight

For nearly a month, the city of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, had been repeatedly struck by rocket and mortar fire.

The Afghan National Army unit, with three Medford-area Oregon Army National Guard soldiers serving as advisers, was intent on stopping the Taliban forces from continuing to pound the formerly quiet industrial city.

Yet the Oct. 16-17 battle that killed 22 Taliban insurgents popped up unexpectedly, said Lt. Col. Keith Ensley of Medford in an e-mail to the Mail Tribune on Tuesday.

"We were due to go into a rebuilding cycle and then turn over our Afghan battalion to the new team," he said. "The team figured it had engaged in the last of its fighting about four weeks ago. Then the call came to move to Lash in 24 hours."

In addition to Ensley, the combat adviser team for the Afghan infantry battalion included Sgts. 1st Class Mike Walker and Larry Williams, both of Central Point.

The squad was part of the 17-member Oregon Guard team that Ensley, former commander of the Guard's 1st Battalion, 186th Infantry Brigade headquartered in Ashland, led to Afghanistan in mid-March of this year. Walker and Williams are members of the 1/186.

Violence in Afghanistan has risen steadily since U.S.-led forces drove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan in 2001. Insurgents on Monday shot down a U.S. helicopter near the capital of Kabul. On the same day, a suicide bomber dressed as an Afghan policeman killed two American soldiers and wounded several other people at a police station in Baghlan province in northern Afghanistan.

The mid-October battle was the first in a series of actions to break up the Taliban forces harassing the city, Ensley reported. Just before the battle, the combat adviser squad moved to an overnight assembly area about three miles outside the city.

"We followed a police guide to our assembly area and, all of a sudden, the Afghans started maneuvering toward the river green zone," Williams reported. "We moved to their flank and got into a position to support them with fire."

Walker was the first in the team to open fire, using his .50-caliber machine gun mounted on an armored vehicle to attack a compound where the Taliban were holed up. Three Taliban were in the area where Walker concentrated his fire, Ensley noted.

Yet the Taliban continued their attack, hitting the vehicle with machine gun fire while firing rocket-propelled grenades which exploded overhead. As AK-47 rounds zipped overhead, Ensley dismounted the vehicle, using it for cover, and sprinted to the Afghan commander to oversee the offensive.

The other two American vehicles on the team maneuvered to the edge of the green zone and engaged the enemy behind a series of compounds as the Afghan soldiers continued to attack the Taliban, Ensley said.

"They wouldn't break and run — this must have been the place they chose to make their stand," Walker said. "Our Afghan soldiers moved extremely well and took it to the Taliban. I was very proud of them."

Three hours into the battle with night approaching, well-targeted mortar rounds started to rain down. The pattern didn't appear to be random as the mortar rounds seemed to be targeting the U.S. vehicles, Ensley said.

"The colonel called for a button-hook and move 400 meters," Williams said, referring to a rapid maneuver to move their position. "We were more than ready to do so and turned out quickly. We were about 200 meters away when 12 mortar rounds hit exactly where we had been."

A Chechen mortar team reported to be in the area was believed to be the one firing the mortars, Ensley said.

The fighting ceased after darkness set in. Taliban radio intercepts later indicated 22 of their fighters died in the battle, Ensley said.

"It was the first and most vigorous battle in ten days of fighting to restore order in Lashkar Gah," Ensley said.

No mortars have been fired into Lashkar Gah since the battle, he added.

But violence continues. The 12-ton Cougar mine-protected armored vehicle Williams was riding in four days ago struck a roadside bomb planted by the Taliban, Ensley reported.

"He is fine but the wheel assembly flew almost three hundred yards," Ensley said.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at

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