All In A Days Work… Clearing Routes, Saving Lives
March 25, 2007
Driving up and down the roads surrounding LSA Anaconda in Iraq’s volatile Diyala province, or any road in Iraq can be quite dangerous. One platoon though, does that day and night. For the Arkansas National Guard members of 1st Platoon, Company A, 875th Engneer Battalion, it’s all in a days work.
Their convoys move slowly along the roads, keeping a sharp eye out for things that look suspicious. Finally their patience paid off. Along the side of the road, barely visible as a black dot against the landscape, was a tube of an improvised rocket launcher. If it had been left there, it would have been used again against Coalition Troops.
Uncovering this kind of deadly surprise is the mission of this Arkansas National Guard unit based in Jonesboro, Arkansas. The battalion constantly drives the roadways around LSA Anaconda and other territories hunting improvised explosive devices.
“Every time you find one, it makes you feel good because you’re potentially saving someone’s life,” said Sgt. Walter E. Rau, a team leader. “Every IED has the potential to hurt someone.”
Most all of the platoon members have themselves experienced the impa of being hit by an IED. Most of them have earned their share of injuries. One soldier, who was unable to go on this particular mission, was still recovering from a concussion he received during a recent explosion. Their work continues day and night, year round. Since arriving in Iraq in September 2006, Company A has driven over 28,800 miles.
“Even on holidays such as Christmas and Thanksgiving, these guys were still clearing the route,” Company Commander Captain David Moore said. “They don’t get much rest and continue to do the mission every day.”
On one Saturday, during pre-mission briefings their 1LT George Collins reminded the men about the importance of not allowing themselves to become complacent.
“These guys are not out there to pop your tire,” he said. “They’re out there to kill you.”
While the soldiers rely on technological advances such as the UAV’s for their job, the simple act of just watching closely everything around them is the real key defense for the Engineers. Each soldier has the authority to stop a convoy at any given moment if they see something that raises their suspicion. Even the most minute of details can make the difference between life and death.
“You’re really just looking for something out of the ordinary,” said Sgt. Patrick Geren. “Sometimes you’ve got to take a second look at it. You know when something is off.”
Since beginning their mission in Iraq, the battalion has uncovered more than 550 explosives. Normally, the battalion finds the explosives before they can be detonated. Due to driving the roads day after day, the soldiers have developed a familiarity with the landscape that surrounds them. Their mission is inherently dangerous and they’ve had many close calls.
Members of the Company remember one such close call. They had stopped their vehicle, only to discover that the vehicle was straddling a landmine. Several of the soldiers shared that they rarely tell their families about the close calls.
Many times, they may go long stretches of time without anything happen. This is when the danger of complacency comes into play. They continuously have to fight the boredom that comes with having stretches of time with nothing happening.
“We comunicate a lot. It keeps everyone alert,” said Sgt. Rau. “What keeps me alert up here is if I mess up, some of the guys in the back of the convoy can get hit.”
Spc. Erich Smallwood, who is a driver shared that the desire to survive also plays a part in being able to stay alert. “Your life is on the line,” he said.
Much of the area they travel is farmland. The roads are pocmarked with potholes that were caused by IED explosions. Civilian traffic generally pulls over quickly when they see the convoy coming towards them. The children often run up to the road waving and pointing to their mouths, seeking treats. Occasionally adult drivers will smile and wave, others will just observe with little or no expression. By observing the behavior of the civilians in the area, troops are able to tell a lot about a given situatio. Due to the exposure to so many civilians, if shooting or explosions start, the Engineers have to act quickly, yet be able to dscern the “good guys” from the “bad guys.” With the constant presence of civilians, troops know that they are constantly being studied. They strive to avoid repetitive habits that could be used against them.
“These guys are watching you every day,” Smallwood said. “You can’t set a pattern.”
Their mission often times holds up traffic, causing both civilians and soldiers alike to become angry and impatient, while having to wait for the road to be cleared. Some become so impatient that they drive around them. Some of the other soldiers feel that there aren’t many explosives in the area. According to the soldiers of Company A, they don’t understand just how many IEDs are really out there.
Driving back to their headquarters after over 8 hours of patrol, the convoy passes a Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office, which is a holding yard for miitary vehicles that have been destroyed by IEDs. Spc. Adam Williamson said that the yard was a reminder of how dangerous the IEDs and rocket launchers really are, especially to those who are unwary and complacent.
Pointing to the destroyed vehicles, he said, “That’s what happens when you don’t find them.”