Madras man in Operation Anaconda
In January, Army Private Johnny Key, son of Penney and John Key of Madras, left on a six-month mission with the 101st Airborne Division "Screaming Eagles," to help guard the airport in Kandahar, Afghanistan. But within a month he found himself thrust in the middle of Operation Anaconda.
Key joined the Army in March 2001 to take Pathfinder and Ranger training and is based out of Fort Campbell, Ky. Shortly after he left, his wife, Jill, put their belongings in storage and moved to Madras to be near his family.
Although soldiers are not allowed to talk much about their missions, his parents were able to glean some details from copies of the "Army Times" newspaper they receive.
Key is with 3,500 soldiers in the 101st Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade combat team, known by its own nickname "The Rakkasans," and his outfit within the brigade is the 2nd Battalion, 187th Infantry.
Their original mission, under Operation Enduring Freedom, was to relieve Marines, who had been guarding the airport for 40 days. They were also to secure and expand the airfield perimeter, and conduct combat operations against al-Qaida forces if needed.
The combat came sooner than expected, on Jan. 10, when some of the first Rakkasans to arrive walked straight off the plane into a firefight between Marines and gunmen on the edge of the airfield, according to the newspaper.
No one was wounded, but soldiers subsequently found at least one land mine in an area that had been swept and declared clear. Land mines are a constant worry in Afghanistan, which is the fourth most heavily mined country in the world.
By early February, the Rakkasans were relieving Marines in several other locations in the country, and were routinely patrolling the countryside in Humvees.
All that changed with Operation Anaconda, when Key and some 1,000 other U.S. soldiers from the 101st Airborne and 10th Mountain divisions were called into combat, along with allied Afghan forces.
"Feb. 23 Johnny called and said this would be his last phone call for a while, and he couldn't write letters and he couldn't say why," his mother said.
From news accounts, his wife and parents guessed he was part of Operation Anaconda and followed the reports. "I heard on TV that they had the guys write a letter and put it in their right cargo pocket in case something happened to them," his mom remarked.
News reports said soldiers were given pills to prevent altitude sickness in order to be able to fight at altitudes ranging from 8,000 to 12,000 feet (Mt. Jefferson is 10,497 feet). The objective was to attack and surround remaining al-Qaida and Taliban fighters hiding in mountain caves.
His family didn't hear from him again until March 12, when Key called to say he was OK, but couldn't say where he was calling from.
"He was there. He was a machine gunner in the mountains and said he doesn't like combat," his dad related.
"He said a tank round ran right through their tent while they were in it and hit a wall behind the tent and blew up," he added.
Key told his mother his unit had been at the 10,000 foot level where the air was very thin, it was very, very cold and there was snow on the ground. Not how he'd envisioned combat.
When her son joined the Army he thought it would be exciting to go to war. He'd written letters from Afghanistan about the fun of living in tents and "roughing it." But actual combat was different.
"He got shot at by everything and was dodging bullets," his mother said.
Apparently, Key was part of 400 soldiers moved to a "forward rear" position to regroup and resupply while Operation Anaconda was on hold, his dad surmised. With 400 guys all trying to make phone calls at the same time, there were phone line problems and their son had to call three different times to complete the conversation.
Key told his wife being in combat had been a real wake-up call for him. "He said it makes you appreciate life and everything a lot more when you're under gunfire and being hit by blown-up dirt," she said.
The soldiers had only been able to take two showers since January, and only had MREs (packaged meals) to eat. "The first time he got real food he said it tasted like heaven," Jill said.
Admitting she's different from a lot of military wives, Jill has a practical view towards the war and relies on her strong religious faith to get her through.
"It's out of my hands and there's nothing I can do. Sure, I worry, but I don't let it rule my life like a lot of families do," she observed.
She also noted her husband chose to be in the military, and wanted to go to Afghanistan, believing it was his job and his duty.
"We both have a lot of faith and he's really learned to believe in God since he's been over there," Jill said.