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Rancho Santa Fe son brings valor home from Afghanistan

PFC Alexander Popescu manning the gun on an observation post (All photos courtesy of PFC Alexander Popescu and U.S. Army)
PFC Alexander Popescu manning the gun on an observation post (All photos courtesy of PFC Alexander Popescu and U.S. Army)

This column presents “Patriot Profiles” to provide readers insight into the lives of our country’s heroes.

By Jeanne McKinney

March 25, 2013. On leave from a recent deployment in Afghanistan, Private First Class (PFC) Alexander Popescu sat across the table from me in his beautiful Rancho Santa Fe home and shared the stark reality of what it is to be an Army Infantryman. Mom Sandy (a Midwesterner with hankie in hand) and dad Val (of Romanian descent) were there and leaned on every word as Alex recounted the serious game he played against yours, mine and America’s worst enemies.

PFC Popescu and Gunner Vaughan watching a village
PFC Popescu and Gunner Vaughan watching a village

Our hometown boy has lived in Rancho Santa Fe his entire life, growing up in a race car family with sisters Nicolette, April, and Andrea. After graduating from Torrey Pines High School, he was working, attending community college, living on his own and basically burning out. Alex states, “I needed a radical life change. I wasn’t doing terribly, but I wasn’t going anywhere so I need something that would kick start that. I figured the Army was as radical as it gets.”

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He enlisted in the Army in 2011. Although most service members don’t set out to become heroes, the world’s finest warrior training and steel-clad brotherhood grows them. The seed was planted when Alex shipped out to Ft. Riley, Kansas, on Mother’s Day 2011. He left behind comforts and conveniences, like soft beds and toilets, to live in a tiny foreign outpost with no running water, sleep on a mat in a retrofitted shipping container, race up mountains with a 90 lb. pack, and watch 24/7 for mortar attacks and whizzing bullets. Alex did this and more for millions of Americans enjoying the “good life.”

Private First Class Alexander Popescu
Private First Class Alexander Popescu

For PFC Popescu, “This is the greatest country in the world. It’s my country and I will do everything that I can to protect it.”

At Ft. Riley, PFC Popescu scored high, trained hard and didn’t want to be stuck behind a desk. “I wanted to be in the fight, not just helping from the sidelines.” He was put on a gun team as Assistant Gunner (AG) to the Gunner, packing a 240L machine gun. Popescu was in control of the three-man team which included an Ammo Bearer. Their mission was to interdict the flow of weapons, munitions and personnel from Pakistan to Afghanistan.

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Body armor
Body armor

In May 2012, Popescu was part of what he calls a band of misfits deployed to the mountains in Combat Outpost (COP) Zerok, Afghanistan. “We were 3rd platoon (about 40 soldiers). You get the new guys – the rejects and all the bad equipment. We were called the ‘Bastards’ because we were the bastardized platoon.” Under some outstanding senior leadership, they trained harder than most. “We kept our noses clean, we weren’t in trouble. We never shirked duty or complained. They would give us all the important missions.” Could be escorting a convoy, training Afghan counterparts, but mostly the “Bastards” were looking for Taliban.

“We’d get Intelligence that certain things were about to happen. We’d meet with the village elders and they’d tell us things or not. We set up observation posts (OPs) on mountains, leaving at dark and climbing all night. There were times when the soldiers were on their hands and knees dragging their packs, avoiding trails because of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

Third Platoon “Bastards.” Popescu, second row from top, second from left. COP Zerok Afghanistan
Third Platoon “Bastards.” Popescu, second row from top, second from left. COP Zerok Afghanistan

“Being at high altitude was terrible,” Popescu remembers, “At first our lungs just couldn’t do it…The next day, we’d spend a whole day watching and searching for whatever Intel wanted.”

The “best” firefight happened in Naka near OP Yankees [mountain], where Taliban are prevalent. While on a rooftop observing part of the village, sniper rifle shots started hitting the wall directly behind Popescu and his Gunner. “We ran off the roof and they lit us up pretty good.” They laid low while the Gunner shoulder-fired over 900 rounds from a 240L machine gun at any possible movement. “My job was to help him spot targets, load rounds and change the barrels. I got some shots off, too.” The experience was best because, oddly, Popescu never felt like his life was on the line.

Memorial service for our fallen heroes
Memorial service for our fallen heroes

Mom Sandy chimes in, “You forgot chatter on the radio said the sniper had locked on you.”

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Alex reminds that as soon as these things happen, they call in everything. “There’s no sweeter sound than Kiowa or Apache helos and F-18 jets flying over. You know if you see them coming, the enemy sees them too and they’re terrified.”

Unfortunate events that occurred during guard duty week led to the “worst” firefight. “We took a mortar round at COP Zerok. Staff Sergeant Matthew Stiltz was hit with shrapnel and, sadly, later died. Two days after, outside the chow hall, Popescu’s Platoon Sergeant was knocked to the ground by the shock wave of a nearby mortar round. He spent a month recuperating and ended up with a stutter. “We were all very angry,”Alex said. “We wanted to go out and find these guys and bring them to justice”

U.S. Army Combat Outpost (COP) Zerok, Afghanistan
U.S. Army Combat Outpost (COP) Zerok, Afghanistan

Chaos exploded on OP Twins, a former American patrol site. “Our mission was to sneak up at night and catch the enemy coming to shoot mortars at us. After we got set in, the enemy detonated an IED and Sergeant Channing Bo Hicks and Sergeant Joseph Richardson were, unfortunately, in the kill radius. When Intel reported the insurgents had IEDs all over the mountain and were going to blow them all up, leadership pulled the platoon several hundred meters back with no time to recover their buddies. “The enemy started walking in their mortars at us,” Popescu recounts, “My gunner and I thought ‘dude, this is it’. Luckily my gunner spotted the launch site and we started unloading on them. Our own mortar teams and air support lit up the mountain. It was the most amazing array of air support I’d ever seen.”

When everything had calmed, the Commanding Officer asked for volunteers to recover the bodies of Hicks and Richardson. Popescu stepped up. “I didn’t want their squad mates to see them like that. My squad leader was best friends with one of them and was going and I didn’t want him to do it alone.”

That effort earned Alex an Army Commendation Medal for “Exceptional valorous service as a rifleman. PFC Popescu exposed himself to immediate improvised explosive devices to recover and medevac his two fallen heroes.”

“It was a rough day,” summarizes Popescu, “there’s nothing that can prepare you for that.”

Popescu and his team did what no others could do before them. They climbed eight different mountains first and best. “We were such a cohesive group — so in sync with one another. We didn’t need arm signals because we knew just by looking at each other what to do and when to do it without being told.”

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PFC Alexander Popescu wears his heart on his forearm, tattooed with the names Stiltz, Hicks and Richardson along with the logo of 3rd platoon “Bastards” — the misfits who nailed the enemy with valor.


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