By Army Sgt. Jon E. Dougherty
Special to American Forces Press Service
Dec. 16, 2009 - The pre-mission brief concluded, combat engineer Army Sgt. Darrin Lewno called together the assembled route-clearance crew, all members of the 211th Engineer Company of the South Dakota Army National Guard. "Our Father, who art in Heaven," began Lewno, as the surrounding citizen-soldiers instinctively bowed their heads and began to pray with him in unison.
To the observer, their recitation of the Lord's Prayer appeared comfortable and familiar, not uptight or staged. For their mission to keep routes clear of improvised explosive devices – one of the most hazardous in Afghanistan – the Guardsmen's appeal to the Almighty didn't at all seem inappropriate. And as some of them soon would discover, it could be argued that their prayers were answered.
As he ordered crews to their vehicles, mission commander Army 1st Lt. Chris Long reflected the mentality and professionalism of his men. His confidence was infectious, and by his words of instruction, it was obvious neither he nor his crews were under any illusions about the risks they were soon to face – again. They all knew, for instance, that the route they were preparing to take – the name of which is classified – was "active," or known to be targeted often by enemy insurgents. They were preparing to depart with the knowledge that their own convoys had been attacked before along the very same route.
All in all, however, they would encounter "nothing we haven't seen before," Long told his men, prior to ordering them to their vehicles.
And yet, driving headlong into the abyss that is Afghanistan's hinterlands is never easy, especially for route-clearance combat engineers – even if the veterans of the 211th make it look that way.
Still, there was little opportunity to contemplate the matter. As the morning chill of the approaching winter persisted, the mission's start time was quickly approaching and there was no time to waste.
The crews had a long way to go. And they had a mission to complete.
Preparing to Move Out
Army Master Sgt. John Dornbusch settled into his seat in the massive Buffalo mine resistant, armor-protected vehicle, strapped on his seat belt, and toggled the electronic communications equipment he would be manning throughout the mission. Meanwhile, Army Spc. Lee Weber, the vehicle's driver, checked gauges and prepared to move out as his right-seat passenger and truck commander, Army Sgt. Jeffrey Dufek, performed a radio check as he also strapped himself into his seat.
Over the headset, rock band AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" played to the delight of the vehicle's classic rock fans.
"Oh, I've got lots more of that good stuff," Dufek boasted. "Just wait until I play some John Fogerty." The ex-Creedence Clearwater Revival front man's tune, "Center Field," is the "greatest song ever written," Dufek assured everyone.
"You've heard of that one before, haven't you, Weber?" Dufek teased, a rip on the MRAP driver's tender age of 26.
Weber took the good-natured ribbing with a shake of his head and a smile.
The convoy began making its way past the forward operating base's entry control point onto a rare paved section of Afghan highway. Crews were bound for a destination which, on a good day, was just over seven hours away.
But distances and travel time in Afghanistan can be misleading, by American standards, in that they are wildly out of proportion. Most roads are just barely that – dusty, cratered dirt pathways barely large enough for a single vehicle. Add to that the ever-present danger of an IED strike or ambush, and travel times can be lengthy, even if distances between bases are minimal.
Besides, to the veteran Guardsmen, a "good day" is one they have defined as devoid of enemy contact, which often can delay a convoy for hours.
A few miles down the road, the vehicle drivers wound their way through the enclave of Sharan, which – at an early hour – was already teeming with Afghans engaged in various activities and commerce. Many of them stopped and stared, as they often do, at the lumbering MRAPs while they passed, the low, throaty rumble of their diesel engines echoing off the various storefronts and mud-and-wood homes.
At key intersections, Afghan National Police officers stood watch, their AK-47 rifles slung casually over their shoulders. Vendors peered out of their shops. Children flashed "thumbs-up" signs.
A half mile or so out of town, the road turned from relatively smooth pavement to a pothole-filled thoroughfare that caused the vehicles to buck and lurch.
"We lost our first vehicle on this route," Dornbusch said somberly, reflecting on an IED hit some weeks before.
Little did he know that, some 20 minutes later, the convoy would experience déjà vu.
Taking a Hit
The lead vehicles in each convoy – called Huskies – slowly rumbled along the bumpy route, scanning for any signs of enemy insurgents or buried IEDs. On a few occasions already, Dornbusch's Buffalo, equipped with a special powerful hydraulic "arm" that is used to "interrogate," or dig, in potential sites, had been requested to search a few areas, but so far had found nothing.
Suddenly, as the convoy inched forward, the sickening "Whoompf!" of an explosion could be seen, heard and felt – about 300 feet ahead of the Buffalo.
In a flash, one of the lead Husky vehicles was violently disabled, a thick cloud of smoke and dust rising rapidly from the detonation. Immediately, radio calls went out to the Husky to determine the fate of its driver, Army Pfc. Brandon Eggers.
"Husky 2, Husky 2, are you OK?"
"This is Husky 2. Yes, I'm all right," Eggers replied in a strangely calm voice.
The convoy came to an abrupt halt, as other lead elements deployed to provide security, and an explosive ordnance disposal unit traveling with the convoy moved in to examine the explosion site and determine if other IEDs were present. Eggers exited his disabled Husky, and moved toward the rear of the column, where he was met and examined by a medic.
Over the next few hours, EOD personnel cleared the area, and the convoy's wrecker team recovered the damaged Husky. It was time to move on.
'One of Those Days'
Within a half hour, a second explosion rocked the convoy.
One of the RG-31 MRAP vehicles belonging to the combat logistics patrol struck another IED with its anti-mine rollers, disabling them but leaving the vehicle intact. Once more, the convoy halted and began what had become a well-rehearsed drill: recovery of the vehicle after EOD gave the all-clear sign. Again, fortunately, there were no injuries.
"Going to be one of those days," Dufek said dryly.
In just over four hours, the convoy had traveled a little more than three miles.
There was still a long way to go. For the next several hours, the crews would be subjected not only to the dangers imposed by insurgents but also to the physical abuse of their own protective vehicles, which were at the mercy of the primitive Afghan infrastructure.
Heading Into Darkness
Darkness comes early to Afghanistan this time of year, and it was just after 5:30 p.m. when the last bit of light left the fall sky.
As nightfall swept over the convoy, a three-quarter moon shone brightly through thin cloud cover. Crews donned night-vision devices to navigate the rough-and-tumble route. The ample moonlight provided more than enough ambient glow for the night-vision devices.
For hours, the convoy continued to creep along, through large expanses of rugged Afghan countryside and small villages that, save for the occasional visible resident and solar-powered streetlight, appeared all but abandoned.
There was little chatter on the radio, other than the periodic routine traffic between crews. In the Buffalo, meanwhile, all of the great rock bands and acts of the past three decades were playing – the Beatles, Eric Clapton, Bob Seger, Journey, Kansas, Boston, Chicago – even K.C. and the Sunshine Band.
"My collection is the complete collection," Dufek said.
It was nearly 2 a.m. when the convoy rolled into its destination – almost 14 hours after it had left its base near Sharan. Long ordered his vehicles into a clearing near the base fuel point then told his men to dismount.
The initial plan was to billet his Guardsmen in tents, but 30 minutes later he and Dornbusch returned with bad news: only two beds were available in the entire compound. So the men would either have to sleep outside in the 25-degree night air or in their vehicles.
There was no complaining, bickering or discussion. Grateful just to be stopped for the night, the entire convoy had, within 15 minutes, set up cots and sleeping bags near their vehicles or had retired inside a vehicle and fallen sound asleep.
Making Their Way Back
Crews awakened about 7 a.m. and began packing their cots and stowing their gear for the return trip. Hungry and tired, many headed first for a nearby chow hall, then back to their bivouac area, where they proceeded to ready their vehicles – and themselves – for the long trip home.
Gathered in groups of two, three or four, some of the men chatted and laughed with each other while others tended to their duties, cleaned themselves or loaded crew-served weapons. Like a well-oiled machine, the veteran Guardsmen were prepared, fueled and ready to leave well before the planned departure time.
Long gathered his men together for a final pre-mission brief, informing them the convoy would likely take an alternate route on the way back to base in hopes of avoiding any more "trouble on the way home."
It was a decision that was popular with the crews.
"Sounds good to me," said Dornbusch, as he and his crewmates climbed into their Buffalo and got ready to get back on the road.
'Boring is Better'
The convoy's route took it through a number of communities, both large and small, all of which were crowded with people, cars and animals during the daylight. In the larger cities especially, vendors on the street peddled fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts, while shopkeepers hawked everything from clothing to cell phones.
However, the trip quickly devolved into a tedious, bumpy affair, the minutes passing into hours, often without a sound from anyone in the convoy. Crews still sore and tired from the day before, seemed too worn out even to converse. Yet the crews were well aware of the nature of their missions – long, tedious stretches of time punctuated by brief, but terrifying, moments of enemy contact.
Still, boring was better, because it meant no danger and, more importantly, no delays.
"I'm just hoping we can get back without any problems today," Weber proffered.
"That'd be best," Dufek seconded.
If only the enemy would cooperate.
That Eerie Silence
About mid-afternoon, the convoy moved into a TAI – target area of interest, or an area where there had been enemy activity in the recent past – and crews recognized it right away. Suddenly, there was no activity in the villages. No vendors were in sight. No children. No traffic. Nothing but an eerie absence of life.
"Sure did get quiet around here," Dufek said.
"I know," Dornbusch answered, recognizing a phenomenon that sometimes occurs right before an enemy strikes.
Several minutes later, as if to accentuate the drama, the convoy's rear element reported that it was taking sporadic small-arms fire from a nearby location.
"We have identified where the rounds are coming from," said the commander of the rear gun truck. "Request permission to return fire, over."
Permission was granted, and a few seconds later, the rear gun truck sent its own rounds "downrange" to the site of the attack.
There was no more enemy fire after the American crew opened up. The short-lived attack was over, almost before it began. Though the attack was ineffectual, it made the point, once again, that no matter where the crews went, there was always risk.
"Let's move on," urged Long, knowing the convoy had several more hours of travel left before getting back.
Travelin' Soldiers Return
Darkness had fallen by the time the worn-out and battered convoy snaked its way through the entry-control point leading back to the base. Long radioed in that his convoy had arrived. The Buffalo crew visibly relaxed.
As the MRAPs rolled in, Dufek dialed up a Dixie Chicks song called "Travelin' Soldier" on his MP3 player:
"Waitin' for the soldier to come back again, never more to be alone when the letter said a soldier's coming home."
For these traveling South Dakota Guardsmen, the end of this day indeed meant they were one day closer to returning home.
(Army Sgt. Jon E. Dougherty serves with the South Dakota National Guard.)