There is a fresh breeze coming down from the Hindu Kush sweeping over the Kunduz desert and in the earlymorning dawn the 170th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 40th Engineers Bravo Company are preparing for a route clearance mission to Imam Sahib.
Their route will take them northeast in the direction of Tajikistan and the might yAmu Darya river, which is also known as the Oxus. It is in this northern region that all the great conquerors entered Afghanistan. Alexander, Genghis Khan, Timur and Babur all crossed the Oxus from strategic points beginning at Termez and stretching to the nearby Pamir Mountains.
Today, the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, is revisiting the past and looking at the same crossings of long ago to open up new supply routes to its armies. Now, the bulk of supplies are arriving from the east –Pakistan – and as the spring brings a surge in hostile activity, supply caravans are often ambushed, which can severely limit operations.
This is precisely this type of mission that the modern day sapper is chosen for. Sergeant First Class Thomas Mingo of Baltimore, Maryland, explained: “A sapper is someone that is proficient in the techniques and tactics of demolition on the ground under any type of conditions.
"The enemy has that luxury of knowing when the attack will take place''
“His primary mission is to search for improvised explosive devices and today he has a lot of new age tools at his disposal. Still, with all the technology, the human elements of wit and courage become vital factors.”
The convoy is nearly ready for departure and they are lined up in order and it is quite an impressive display of vehicles. But before they can begin, one more final inspection will take place – the checking and securing of load plans.
Conducting the inspectionis the commanding officer of FOB Kunduz, Lieutenant Colonel Eichenburg, a West Point graduate. Tall, with a lean athletic build and intense demeanor, he barks orders like a professional quarterback while confirming with the platoon leadersand tank commanders.
“Obviously, we don’t knowwhen we are going to be hit,” Lt Colonel Eichenburg begins. “We don’t have any Marvin the Mindreaders here. The enemy has that luxury of knowing when the attack will take place.
“So we have to be ready every day, while they only have to be ready one day out of 14. Because we do so many patrols, one of the more difficult things is to insure that the standard operating procedures are followed.
“You think that you are out there for a few hours and you might be out there for four days. All your equipment has to be checked and rechecked. The securing of a load plan is extremely important.
“You never want to have to write to a parent that their son survived an IED attack, but had his head caved in by a 27 kilogramme ammobox that was not properly secured in place. We have to be prepared each and everyday because the one day that I did not check my vehicles is the one day we mightbe attacked.
“It is a very tedious chore,but one that often saves your life.”
With all the latest bombproof technology built into the vehicles, the bomb blast does not penetrate the truck, but rather lifts it up and throws it in the air. Or it rolls it over and bounces it around. When the truck is in that suspended free fall, the soldier is strapped down tight, but if something else is not, like an M-16 rifle or an ammo box or even my camera case, it becomes a flying projectile.
The first vehicle in the convoy, or tip of the spear as they like to say, is the Husky. At first glance it looks like a farm tractor with its long narrow frame and single seat up top. That’s right, there is only one man in the husky and he will lead the convoy down all the roads where explosives are hidden. It is his job to find the explosives before the explosives find the vehicles.
“You got to have a guy who is smart enough to operate the technology at his hands,but dumb enough not to care about the danger he is in,” jokes Captain Schroeder. “Seriously,what makes a good Husky operator is someone who has an eye for detail. The equipment will do its job, but it is not fool-proof. He has to constantly search the terrain for indicators.”
Specialist John Filo is a Husky driver and his youth and eagerness conquer any fear that might keep him from being the first man to enter the minefields.
“Really it is not too scary because with the equipment you can see it [the IEDs] before it sees you,” admits Specialist Filo. “However, once you turn on that road, you feel the adrenaline start pumping. And then it is like,‘am I going to get it? Or is going to get me?’”
The Husky is equipped withforward reaching sensors that look a bit like lobster claws and it has a Ground Radar System that can detect buried objects. However, the insurgents have also adapted to the technological advancementsand have begun building IEDs in wood and plastic cases that make it even more difficult to detect.
“No matter where you drive you know that there is or could be an IED out there”
Bombs are buried and initiators are used to ignite them. A route clearance mission is not exactly the most exciting of patrols in the army. Typically, the convoy moves at about 6 kilometres per hour. There are days when the convoy is out there for 12-16 hours.
The convoy literally crawls along the road. As their vehicles are loaded with food and water, so they also carry empty bottles near their feet. There are no stops forwhen nature calls on a route clearance mission. The earth in this particular part of Afghanistan is hard and filledwith rocks. Digging up holes to plant explosives is a difficult and laborious task.
Once an explosive is detected,the Husky marks the spot with red spray paint and backs away. Now enters the Buffalo. This is a mammoth size truck that carries a longarm that looks like a giantfork that rakes away the soil so the commanders can get eyes on the explosive.
Then they have a robot that is controlled by a joystick and operated like a video game that can go out of the truck and deal with the danger. Other vehicles in the convoy turn on jammers that can block cell phone signals from igniting the devices.
While the Buffalo begins toeither disarm the explosive or safely detonate it, the rest of the company sets up a security perimeter as this is the timewhen they are ambushed.
Two days later, Charlie Company rolls back into FOBKunduz. It has been a sluggishly long and tedious missionfor them and many of the soldiers have become jaded. For they know that when the enemy becomes aware that a route clearance mission is coming they often dig up the initiators or bombs and wai tfor the convoy to pass beforere-burying them.
“No matter where you drive you know that there is or could be an IED out there,”says Lieutenant Zachary Willey.“The locals keep telling us that the enemy is prepping every night. Ideally, we would clear a road, and then Afghan local authorities would maintain the area secure.”
So far in most of Afghanistanthat is not happening.