Pfc. Josh Harris pulled the charging handle of a grenade launcher on Thursday, leaned back and peered through the sights.

His orders were clear.

“All right,” said Spc. Michael Breton, moments earlier. “There is an ice cream truck out there. So shoot it.”

Pressing down with this thumbs, the MK-19 — a machine gun equipped with grenades instead of bullets — launched four training grenades 300 meters down a Fort Carson range.

By March, he’ll likely be watching grenades sail into the hillsides of eastern Afghanistan.

Troops with the 4th Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division will leave for outposts on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in a few weeks. They’ll serve a nine-month tour in the mountainous — and volatile — region.

When they arrive, troops on patrol will rely heavily on those automatic grenade launchers when the enemy attacks.

They will also rely on some last-minute training.

“Don’t just blow through the ammo,” said Sgt. 1st Class Jeffery Bales, at the beginning of Thursday’s training. “Let’s get some range so you can see what the system does for you. Get some confidence because this is going to be your bread and butter out there.”

The MK-19, which is often mounted on top of armored vehicles alongside machine guns, can accurately hit targets up to a mile away with dozens of grenades.

In mountainous regions — including the rugged landscape of eastern Afghanistan — it becomes a deadly tool for silencing gunfire from distant hillsides. MK-19s also are used extensively at American outposts to keep insurgents at bay.

“Anything within a 5-meter burst is going to get some pain added to it,” Bales said.
Soldiers in Bales’ Delta Company expect to spend their last few weeks stateside focusing live-fire exercises after months of diplomacy-first training.

The fact that Capt. Tommy Ryan, leader of Delta Company, put for cultural awareness, language and leadership training first shows the changing role of American troops in Afghanistan.

Army leaders are placing a greater burden on Afghan forces to patrol their country in anticipation of the United States’ planned withdrawal by 2014. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta hinted that combat operations could end even sooner, perhaps in 2013.

With that in mind, Ryan said his troops have been told to set aside their combat instincts and let the Afghan forces fight for themselves. His troops have been ordered to intervene only when absolutely needed.

“It’s going to be unnatural, but if I don’t try it and if I don’t get my men to do it, we’re only setting ourselves up for failure,” Ryan said. “Whether or not politically we leave in 2014, that’s the goal right now."

“We’re working ourselves out of a job.”

With that cultural and leadership training complete, Delta Company tried to “resharpen the knife” by firing 600 flash grenades at targets up to a mile away.

Relatively new to the MK-19, Harris turned to a soldier who was there the last time the 4th Brigade deployed to eastern Afghanistan in May 2009.

“Is that too low?” Harris asked.

“You tell me,” said Spc. Bradley Donnels, one of about 10 soldiers in Delta Company returning to eastern Afghanistan.

Moments later, the grenades landed a little left and above the target. Harris adjusted his sights and pulled the trigger.

Later, Donnels offered a bit more advice, knowing the danger ahead.

“You got to be 10 steps ahead of what you’re doing” he said. “In country, it’s a different ball game.”