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For soldiers overseas, every day is a reminder

By Indira A.R. Lakshmanan, Globe Staff, 9/12/2002

ORGUN, Afghanistan - American forces on the front lines in the war against terrorism marked the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks yesterday by hunting for holdout Al Qaeda fighters and searching the mountains of eastern Afghanistan for weapons those fighters may have left behind.

But the soldiers at Camp Harriman in Paktika Province, one of a dozen US forward bases in the country, also paused for a solemn ceremony to remember the victims of the attacks that prompted the beginning of the war in Afghanistan 11 months ago.

''I want everyone to hammer it home and drill it into their head today that one year later, you are standing here fighting for your country based upon what happened one year ago today,'' said Matt, the Green Beret major in charge of Camp Harriman, a Special Forces firebase supported by an 82d Airborne Infantry Company. The US military insists that Special Forces soldiers be identified only by their first names.

A joint team of 82d Airborne Infantry troops and US Special Forces spent the day searching for a reported weapons cache in a nearby village, but were unable to find anything. Green Berets spent Tuesday night patrolling the Orgun-e-Kalan valley trying to catch or deter attackers who have been firing rockets at this and other US firebases.

There were a few, unsuccessful attempts to attack US forces yesterday, Afghan and US military officials said. A rocket landed about 54 yards from a Special Forces firebase in Lawara, about 20 miles east of Orgun, the nearest miss to date on any US base. Two rockets and a mortar were reportedly fired at the US base at the Khost airfield, according to the provincial governor and US military officials. A gunman fired at a guard tower at the Bagram air base outside Kabul. US soldiers returned fire, wounding the gunman, who escaped and was then taken to a hospital by local Afghans.

In Orgun, more than 100 US soldiers lined up and bowed their heads for a brief memorial service. After the US national anthem was played and the flag lowered to half-staff, Chaplain Dan Knight, a former Green Beret and Army Ranger, read a statement from President Bush, gave prayers for peace in the United States and Afghanistan, and asked God for ''continued protection for all of us ... to hunt down, kill, or capture those responsible.''

Matt, the commander, told his men that the best way to remember the deadliest terrorist attacks in US history was to carry out their mission: to hunt for and disarm Al Qaeda fighters.

''Let there be no doubt in your military mind that this is in fact a war in defense of our vital national interests,'' Matt added. ''Your nation depends on you for it.''

Immediately after the ceremony, a pickup truck and four Humvees armed with automatic grenade launchers and 50-caliber machine guns set out with 20 infantry soldiers and Special Forces to the village of Zara Pasanay, about 10 miles away, to search for a weapons cache that was reported to be hidden in a local farmer's compound. The owner of the compound insisted he had buried no weapons, but conceded that his brother, who was away, might have. After hours of digging under a false floor and in a hidden cellar, the searchers found only a few casings of old mortar shells and mines.

Monty, a Green Beret leading the operation, told the farmer that if he came forward with the weapons or information leading to them, he could receive $2,500 in reward money. Despite having his floor dug up and neighbors staring at the activity in his house, the old man said he understood why the US soldiers had come, and offered them tea after they finished their search.

Back at the base, other infantrymen and special forces were focusing on their work as if it were any other day. ''It's Groundhog Day over here,'' said Casey, a 35-year-old Green Beret from California. ''We've got to do business as usual.''

For some, such as Corporal Peter Sarvis, who left his job as a New York stock broker to enlist after two of his friends were killed in the World Trade Center, the anniversary brought a flood of personal memories.

''It's not hard for me at all to look back on Sept. 11 and get all fired up again with emotions to justify what we're doing here,'' said Sarvis, 27, a native of Pine Bush, N.Y., who gave up his job as a broker at AXA Advisers to go on active duty. ''I think if there's any possibility that Osama bin Laden or any person involved in planning Sept. 11 is alive, I don't consider my job or the job of anyone in the military done. ''

Staff Sergeant William Snyder, 31, a native of Long Island, N.Y., spent last Sept. 11 helping emergency crews at ground zero. The next day, he left for Fort Benning, Ga., to get his airborne qualification so he would be eligible to come to Afghanistan with the 82d Airborne.

''Everyone in my family has worked at the World Trade Center at one time or another over the years,'' Snyder said. ''My brother-in-law was working across the street and saw people jumping for their lives. ... I commemorate Sept. 11 every time [I think of] going over the bridge to Manhattan and how your eyes can wander now without stopping until midtown because the towers are gone.''

This story ran on page A25 of the Boston Globe on 9/12/2002.
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