A Union man is back home after a tour of duty in Afghanistan that saw him take part in an intense battle with the Taliban that not only involved fighting an enemy that could see his unit in the dark but also enduring weather conditions that at one point left him and his fellow soldiers with little or no food and water.
TJ Gault is the son of Tim Gault and Kim Austin and a 2006 graduate of Union High School. While still in school, Gault, then 17 and a junior, enlisted in the SC National Guard. Three years later in 2008, he began serving active duty in the US Army, undergoing basic training and then Advanced Individual Training for the Infantry at Ft. Benning, Ga. In June of 2008, Gault was assigned to the 3rd Brigade, 25th Infantry Division stationed at Schofield Barracks in Honolulu, Hawaii.
“I was a Team Leader as well as my company’s Armorer,” Gault, who holds the rank of Specialist, said. “My job was to make sure all the weapons were clean, and do inventory once a month on $11.6 million worth of weapons, navigational devices, night vision goggles, and other equipment.”
In 2011, Gault and his unit, Bravo Company, was sent to a locale more far more forbidding and dangerous than Honolulu, the Sirkanay District in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan.
“I was supposed to be leaving in June, but I volunteered in March,” Gault said.
Gault’s tour of duty would last from March 2011 until Feb. 2012, and at first things were relatively quiet.
“The first couple of months we did routine patrols, we’d go out with the 101st Airborne which we were replacing,” Gault said. “We went out with them for a month to see what they were doing, to make sure that we knew the land.”
After learning the ropes, Gault’s unit took over patrolling the area and, in June 2011, on what was supposed to be a simple clearing operation, Bravo Company came up against the Taliban.
“In late June we did this mission and it was supposed to last 48 hours,” Gault said. “We got there and there were three platoons. Every platoon was supposed to clear four kulats, Afghan mud houses. Once we got there and saw the huts we were supposed to be clearing, we’d actually came upon a Taliban training camp with about 200-250 Taliban members there.”
This unexpected run-in with the enemy forced Gault and his platoon to dig in and wait and there they would remain for the next six days. In addition to having to face large numbers of enemy fighters, Gault said he and his fellow soldiers had to contend with bad weather that helped disrupt efforts to supply them.
“The water and food supply was blacked out — that was our term — from Saturday afternoon to Monday morning,” Gault said. “For those couple of days air support could not get in due to bad weather as well as too many fighters on the ground. For those two days you either didn’t have food and water or you had so little it had to be rationed.”
In the course of the fighting, one of the platoons became trapped by the Taliban, taking casualties, leading to Gault’s platoon being ordered in to get them out.
“First platoon got stuck on the mountain, they already had three KIA (Killed In Action) and 13 wounded,” Gault said. “Our battalion commander told our platoon leader that my platoon (3rd Platoon) was going in. Around 9:30 on Monday night we set out into the open mountain terrain. It wasn’t but 500 meters away from the other platoon, but we winded up taking six hours to get there due to the terrain.”
As they were making their way to their comrades, Gault said his unit got disturbing news that the enemy could see them and was deciding whether or not to attack them. What made it even more disturbing was that the enemy could see them because of a piece of equipment that enables American soldiers to see the enemy.
“About an hour into it, we picked up chatter on a Taliban radio that our interpreter got to carry,” Gault said. “You could hear that they were asking their commander if they could fire on us because they were actually following us by the green glow in the night vision goggles. Luckily, the commander decided it against it because it would give away their position.”
Even though they didn’t come under fire at that time, Gault and his fellow soldiers would soon find themselves under attack.
“Around 4 a.m. every morning is when the sun is fully up in Afghanistan,” Gault said. “It was 3:15 a.m. with 50 meters to go. Once we finally reached 1st Platoon we had enough time to put our assault packs down when the firefight began around 3:50 a.m.”
The radio that had earlier alerted them to the presence of the Taliban following them now let them know that their attackers were calling in reinforcements.
“We picked up more chatter that the Tabliban were asking for Taliban members in Nuristan, a nearby province, to come in to help attack the Americans,” Gault said. “It would take them 48 hours to get here because all of them were walking.”
Soon after, however, the tide of battle began to change in favor of the Americans, a bit of welcome news provided by the Taliban.
“Around 11 a.m. that morning we started getting the upper hand,” Gault said. “We could hear on the radio that they were running out of ammo, out of bodies, and other supplies. So on Wednesday night we made our 300-meter trek down to the LZ (Landing Zone) for exfil (exfiltration).”
Once again, however, Mother Nature through a monkey wrench into the soldiers’ plans.
“Around 10:30 that night a massive storm just let loose,” Gault said. “Our platoon leader told us that if it did not stop by 1 a.m. we would not be leaving, we would have to stay another day. We just prayed.”
Their prayers were answered.
“Around 12:45 it just stopped, it didn’t slow down or nothing, it just stopped,” Gault said. “Two Chinooks were flying in and at that point we knew we had made it. We were exfilled out and back to the FOB (Forward Operating Base).”
In addition to the casualties suffered by 1st Platoon, Gault said his platoon suffered two wounded. He said the Taliban lost approximately 160 fighters to a mixture of fire from the soldiers on the ground and the bombs that drenched their positions during the course of the fighting.
For the remainder of their tour, Gault said his unit was spared the kind of intense fighting it had endured in late June, but they still had to deal with the dangerous and occasionally lethal harassing actions of the Taliban.
“After that it was routine patrols though we still had to deal with the occasional IED (Improvised Explosive Device) and KIAs here and there,” Gault said. “During the summer you’d have the Taliban shoot their mortars and AK-47s at our FOB. They never killed anyone. They’d mostly hit the dumpsters and the walls of our buildings.”
In addition to patrolling, Gault and his unit also carried out “hearts and minds” operations designed to win over the local population. Gault said it was a humbling experience.
“When we’d go to the nearby district, we’d get out and patrol and we’d go up to the civilians there,” Gault said. “I would always carry a cargo pocket or two full of candy or food and I would pass it out to the little kids as well as some of the adults. The looks on their faces for a piece of bubble gum or a sucker was just priceless. As an American, it made me realize how much I take for granted.”
Gault and his unit returned to Honolulu in February and looking back on his time in Afghanistan, Gault admits to having mixed feelings about America’s continuing presence there.
“I guess I’m actually torn between it,” Gault said. “From one standpoint, we’re spending billions, not only for us but giving it to the Afghan people as well. But knowing that those little kids want us there made me love my job and made me want to be there.”
Much as he loved his job and his service in Afghanistan, Gault is back home in Union County having returned May 28. While he will continue his service in the military, Gault said it will be in the National Guard rather than the regular Army.
“I’m currently in the Army until the middle of July and then I’m going to switch over to the National Guard for at least one year,” Gault said. “I’ll be a Rifleman with Bravo Company, 1/118th Infantry Battalion, Gaffney. If I do make a career of the military it will be in the National Guard.”
Gault said he decided to leave the Army for the Guard in order to be with his 3-year-old daughter Kesley.
“I had to come home,” Gault said. “I want to watch my daughter grow up.”