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Clearing the Way: Engineers Hunt Roadside Bombs

By Army Sgt. Jon E. Dougherty
Special to American Forces Press Service

NEAR FORWARD OPERATING BASE SALERNO, Afghanistan, Jan. 4, 2010 – While there may be no place in Afghanistan that is completely safe for U.S. and coalition forces, some regions certainly are much more dangerous than others.

In those risky locales, the 1141st Engineer Company’s sappers -- combat engineers – who are part of the Missouri Army National Guard’s 203rd Engineer Battalion, are keeping Afghan roads clear of improvised explosive devices.

The vast majority of vehicular traffic – military and otherwise – seeks to avoid contact with IEDs, but it is the job of these Missouri Guardsmen to hunt them like the “Houn’ Dawgs” for which the unit is affectionately nicknamed.

On a recent route-clearance patrol, the 1141st indeed hunted down its quarry. Over a three-day period, two platoons encountered a dozen IEDs along a short stretch of road, as well as mortar and small-arms fire from a small group of insurgents.

In the process, the unit suffered four vehicles lost or damaged, but no casualties. Further, despite the best efforts of the enemy, the Guardsmen nonetheless accomplished their mission and, in the process, made life a little safer for Afghans living in the area.

Route-clearance Patrol Charlie, led by Army 1st Lt. Ronnie Mayfield, set out Dec. 7 from Forward Operating Base Salerno to escort elements of another unit to a base about nine miles away. On the surface, it seemed like such a simple mission: clear a route over mostly paved roads to a remote outpost, rest overnight, then return.

But in Afghanistan, no overland mission is that simple. And Mayfield’s veteran 3rd Platoon knew that. Nothing they had done since taking over the route-clearance mission from their predecessors had been simple.

This assignment would be no different.

Rolling Out

The convoy set out before dawn, the exhaust from the lumbering mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles leaving plumes of steam in the cold air behind them as, one by one, the crews passed the base’s outer checkpoint onto rare paved road outside the gate. A smattering of Afghans, some engaged in commerce, others perhaps on their way to work, stared intently as the convoy passed, a few turning to each other to exchange words or glances.

In Truck Three-Three, Army Spc. Ryan A. Dautenhaun of St. James, Mo., was the driver. Army Spc. Eric J. Phillippe of Cosby, Mo., was in the truck turret, manning the vehicle’s gun. Army Staff Sgt. Chad A. Waters, of Norborne, Mo., the truck commander, chatted back and forth on the intercom about the ensuing mission.

“How many [IEDs] do you think we’ll hit today?” Phillippe asked to no one in particular.

“Oh, man,” answered Waters, “it’s going to be a lot. It always is on this route.”

“Maybe we’ll have a slow day,” offered Dautenhaun, his mischievous grin betraying his attempt to hide the sarcasm.

“Yeah, sure,” Waters replied sardonically. “No way that’ll happen.”

The seasoned crew, like the rest of the platoon – veterans, all, though they had only been in Afghanistan for a few weeks – had been through this before. They had encountered IEDs and enemy fire and, save for the loss of a few vehicles, had come through unscathed. The enemy contact was liberating, insofar as it enabled each soldier to answer a number of questions they had formed in their mind before their first taste of combat: “Will I be able to handle it?” “Can I do my part?” “Do I have what it takes to avoid letting down my battle buddies?”

To a man, each soldier had satisfactorily answered each question. If there were any lingering doubts among members of the platoon, they would soon be answered.

The convoy was shorthanded, missing valuable defensive assets. An IED had destroyed one of their mine hunters just a day earlier along the same route. But because the mission had been deemed too important to delay, the Houn’ Dawgs left their base on schedule. Within an hour, they would make their first find.

“All stop”

As the convoy crawled along a dusty, pothole-filled section of dirt road, the sudden call of, “All stop, all stop!” over the radio brought each armored vehicle to an abrupt halt.

“This is Three-One, we’ve got a ping” said the lead element, referring to a signal indicating a possible IED buried in the roadway. Within moments, the convoy’s massive Buffalo MRAP, with its clawed, stout hydraulic arm, acknowledged the find and then inched forward toward the spot marked by the lead element to “interrogate,” or dig up, the area in question.

After a brief interrogation, the Buffalo had uncovered an anti-tank mine along with secondary explosives, leading the convoy’s explosive ordnance disposal personnel to move forward to recover them. It would take another hour for the EOD team to extract the explosives, wire them for demolition, and clear the road for traffic. The team moved the explosives to a spot some distance off the road before detonating them.

Once under way again, the convoy moved warily along, the soldiers aware that they were entering an area known to be a haven for IEDs.

“There’s one,” Waters said. “Let’s see how many more we can find.”

He didn’t have long to wait.

“WHUMP!” The sound of the explosion reverberated through the convoy with startling suddenness.

The radio came alive with traffic.

“This is Three-Six,” barked the command element. “Who got hit?”

“Looks like Three-One,” came the reply, referring to the convoy’s Husky mine hunter, the lead element.

“Three-One, this is Three-Six, are you OK?”

“Three-Six, this is Three-One. I’m fine,” said the lead element. “I’m sorry. I think I broke your Husky.”

In Three-Three, there was laughter – albeit nervous laughter – at the lead element’s joke. All were happy that the soldier operating that vehicle was not only OK, but also was in good spirits.

“We’ll come get you, Three-One,” said the command element, adding that the convoy’s medic would accompany a small group of soldiers who already were dismounting to secure the Husky and retrieve its driver.

Recovering the Husky

The Husky had been badly damaged by an IED charge that EOD personnel said measured several dozen pounds’ worth of homemade explosives. As soon as its driver was recovered and EOD cleared the area of further explosives, an operation to recover the damaged sections of the Husky began.

Third Platoon soldiers worked tirelessly to hoist the Husky’s remains aboard the convoy’s wrecker vehicle. It is a process that cannot be rushed, due to the dangerous nature of securing and raising parts of a vehicle that weigh several thousand pounds each. But as the crew worked, from a nearby settlement the enemy watched. And when the time was right, the enemy attacked.

The first mortar landed harmlessly in the dirt about 80 yards away from the convoy between it and the mud-wall settlement where it most likely originated.

“Incoming!” came a shout over the radio. “Incoming!”

As the warning sounded, 3rd Platoon soldiers still recovering the Husky dove into a nearby ditch, as a gunner from a forward element opened fire from his turret with an M240B machine gun.

As the enemy answered with sporadic small-arms fire, another mortar shell landed behind the convoy and across the road, about 50 yards away.

“They’re trying to bracket us!” Dautenhaun said, referring to the enemy mortar team’s attempt to find the correct distance to the convoy by adjusting its tube to fire at different angles until the correct angle and distance to the convoy could be determined.

But the second mortar round sparked heavier return fire from the convoy. With the staccato sound of the M240B blazing, M-4 rifles from 3rd Platoon’s dismounted soldiers joined the fray.

“Where are they? Does anyone see them?” Waters shouted into the intercom. “Phillippe, do you see them?”

“I don’t see anyone,” Phillippe answered, as he swiveled in his turret in a frantic bid to find a target.

But as quickly as the attack began, it ended just moments later. As the convoy’s guns fell silent, the radio crackled with inquiries about battle damage, injuries and the status of the recovery effort.

“How is the recovery team? Where is [command element] Three-Six?” someone said.

“Three-Six is on the ground,” came the reply. “They’re all OK. Everyone’s good.”

(This is Part 1 of a two-part series. Part 2 will follow tomorrow. Army Sgt. Jon E. Dougherty serves with the 203rd Engineer Battalion.)

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Special Report: Afghanistan Buildup
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