Two Fort Richardson paratroopers were killed and 13 were injured on the Fourth of July after their post came under fierce attack by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, the Army said Monday.
Pfc. Justin A. Casillas and Pfc. Aaron E. Fairbairn were killed at Combat Outpost Zerok in the Paktika Province of eastern Afghanistan in the battle, the Army said.
Enemy units attacked the outpost with semi-automatic fire, rockets and mortars, the Army said. The multi-pronged attack in eastern Paktika province -- where an American soldier was captured June 30 -- also included a suicide truck bombing. Officials said an insurgent drove the truck filled with explosives and gravel toward the gates of the remote U.S. base.
"They were trying to get it to stop and it wouldn't," Army spokesman Chuck Canterbury said. "It kept on coming so they opened fire on it and it blew up."
Rocket, mortar and small arms fire were also peppering the position when the blast erupted. The attack, for which the Taliban claimed responsibility, lasted for two hours before U.S. forces called in airstrikes that ended the fight.
The 13 American soldiers injured in the clash were in the same Fort Richardson-based battalion as the two who were killed, Canterbury said. Two of them have been returned to duty. Army officials did not release the conditions of the others.
Casillas, 19, of Dunnigan, Calif., graduated from Pierce High School in Arbuckle, Calif., last year and joined the Army in July 2008. He trained to be an infantryman at Fort Benning, Ga., and came to Fort Richardson last November, when he was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division.
Fairbairn, 20, of Aberdeen, Wash., was a mortarman who joined the Army in January 2008 and also trained at Fort Benning. He arrived at Fort Richardson in June 2008 and was assigned to the same unit.
This weekend, Fairbairn's stepfather, David Masters, told the Seattle Times that Fairbairn graduated from Weatherwax High School in Aberdeen and was an off-road enthusiast who loved riding dirt bikes and mudding in his truck.
After he got news of Fairbairn's death, Masters posted a note on Twitter asking people to observe his son's sacrifice with the phrase "thankyouaaron," he told the Times. The phrase was the most-used term on the site for a while Saturday night.
The deaths bring to five the number of soldiers from the brigade killed since it deployed to Afghanistan in February, Canterbury said.
The Fourth of July blitz came as thousands of U.S. Marines continued a major anti-Taliban offensive in Helmand Province in the south.
It also occurred in the same province where an American soldier was captured by insurgents June 30 and in which Fort Richardson soldiers are operating. Army officials have kept silent on details of the abduction, including to which unit the soldier was attached.
The Army is releasing "just the fact that he has been kidnapped and nothing further because we're working actively to recover him and we don't want to give away any information that might jeopardize that or put his life at risk," said Col. Greg Julian, reached in Afghanistan Monday afternoon.
The American soldier was captured and believed being held by the Taliban after he walked off his base in eastern Afghanistan without his body armor and weapon. The abduction is believed to be the first of a U.S. service member in the nearly 8-year-old war.
On Monday, The Associated Press reported that the Taliban's Web site says that it "arrested a drunken American soldier." They claim the soldier was still in their custody but did not elaborate on his whereabouts and provided no proof of the claim.
Find James Halpin online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call him at 257-4589.