In the War To End All Wars (World War I ended nothing), artillery barrages, poison gas attacks and trench offensives came at predictable times. Much of that war was fought just before and after sunrise and at dusk. To be ready for the war’s prime killing times Allied soldiers began a tradition that became known as “stand to”. Translated, it meant stand towards the enemy, and be ready before they attacked.
90 years later, at a small U.S. post in a high mountain valley in eastern Afghanistan, the tradition of “stand to” has been revived – out of necessity. Combat Outpost Lowell located in mountainous Nuristan Province is reputed to be the most attacked base in Afghanistan. Indirect mortar fire, and direct sniper and rocket-propelled-grenade attacks are an almost daily occurrence.
First light comes early here. At 3:45 this morning, the camp’s First Sergeant shook us awake. Get ready to “stand to” in fifteen minutes, he whispered. Half asleep, Carlos and I strapped on our body armor and kevlar helmets and headed for Lowell’s TOC (Tactical Operations Center). At 4 am sharp the entire base was in full “battle rattle” , weapons at the ready, waiting for incoming fire.
Imagine you’re at the bottom of a cereal bowl looking up. That precisely describes COP Lowell. Steep mountains rise sharply above it on all sides. Afghan insurgents could toss a rock from their “high ground” vantage points and hit the base. However, when they do toss their “rocks”, there is a steep price to pay. Lowell is laden with heavy weapons and the soldiers here, all from 6/4 Cavalry, 1st Infantry Division, let loose with a barrage of counter-fire – if they can see their attackers. Often, they cannot.
The morning stand-to ended without incident. A hot Summer sun was already beginning to bake. The local insurgents don’t like to attack in the bright light of day. Lowell’s soldiers returned to their normal duties.
Twelve hours later we were again at stand-to. Just when I began thinking that this old tactic might be a waste of time, a huge boom shook the base. A mortar round hit nearby. The men who launched it were likely on the back side of a mountain that looms over the south side of the base. More incoming rounds were expected, but just in a nick of time a violent mountain thunderstorm moved in. We spent the rest of our early evening avoiding rain drops, not mortar fire. It was a good night.