By Army Sgt. Jon E. Dougherty
Special to American Forces Press Service
Jan. 25, 2010 - By any measure, Mike Woodgerd is a patriot. And by any measure, U.S. forces are going to benefit from his patriotism and his innovative spirit. Having spent more than 20 years in an Army uniform, Woodgerd is spending the next phase of his military career as a civilian contractor. But in terms of service, he hasn't missed a beat. In fact, he's stepped up his game.
Moved by the death of an explosive ordnance disposal soldier in 2008, Woodgerd has dedicated the last 19 months of his life to the development of a warfighting concept and tool that, if successful, could save countless lives while improving the standard of living for the average Afghan.
Earlier this month, Woodgerd oversaw the first deployment of "Salerno Boxes" – square, metal-framed devices topped in concrete that are designed to prevent insurgents from planting bombs in culverts to target military or civilian traffic that passes on the road overhead.
Now, servicvemembers must examine nearly every culvert, either by using a vehicle-mounted camera or their own eyes – the latter of which can be extremely dangerous.
"Every time our guys have to dismount and actually look into those culverts, they are staring into the mouth of the dragon," Woodgerd told me. "I wanted to do something so they wouldn't have to look into the mouth of the dragon."
And the dragon has reared its ugly head a number of times, especially along roads that fall within the responsibility of the 1141st Engineer Company, a Missouri Army National Guard route-clearance unit based here that has witnessed first-hand the damage bombs in culverts can cause.
In several culverts along routes where the 1141st hunts for improvised explosive devices are bomb craters left by previous detonations that are big enough to force traffic off the paved road and onto dirt bypasses – where it is much easier to plant more bombs.
"Insurgents have, historically, used culverts to plant IEDs," said Army 1st Lt. Travis Miller of Jefferson City, Mo., commander of the 1141st's 1st Platoon, the unit assigned to deploy the first two Salerno Boxes. "We want to try to make sure that we can drop these in and keep insurgents from using culverts against us in the future."
Woodgerd said that while his team played a major role in developing the boxes, the initial design came from similar devices employed in Iraq. And while he's not quick to take all the credit, he is quick to point out how eager he was to get the project off the ground. He extended his contract so he could see the project to fruition.
"When I was home on leave last fall, my wife and I were walking along the beach, and she said, 'Why don't you finish what you started?'" he said. "I was glad to come back, knowing I would continue working on" the boxes.
Now, months later, his vision finally is being realized.
Miller's platoon took just four hours to deploy the first two boxes, an operation that immediately drew the attention – and concern – of local Afghans. Shortly after the combat engineers began working, an elder from a nearby village ventured out alone to check on the commotion. He was met by Miller and by Army Capt. Bryan Sayer, commander of the 1141st.
It seems he was primarily concerned that the devices would impede or cut off the flow of water through the culvert – water that is vital to farming in this arid environment. But the soldier-diplomats quickly assuaged the elder's concerns by explaining that the denial system would hinder insurgents but not hamper the flow of water.
Part of the plan to keep the boxes in place depends on the trust and support of the local people, who need to know they are being put there to help protect them as well as U.S. and NATO forces. Soon after, crowds that had gathered at the periphery began to close in on the American soldiers, the elder's acceptance serving as the icebreaker.
Before the first Salerno Box was seated, dozens of men and boys surrounded the platoon, eager to get a glimpse of the American operation and to interact with the soldiers. By the time the second box was being installed, Afghans were participating in the installation.
Seeing that the Americans were having trouble leveling an area for the second box by using a large backhoe machine, one Afghan man shed his sandals and jumped into the calf-deep water to help. Using just a shovel, the man spread out the muddy earth, then motioned for the Americans to once again lower the heavy metal Salerno Box into place next to the culvert opening.
It fit perfectly.
Rewarded with a First Strike meal and two sodas, the smiling Afghan man disappeared back into the crowd to observe the rest of the operation.
Back at Salerno, Woodgerd was beaming.
"It's so good to finally see these things deployed," he told me. "I really believe they will save lives – and that's the most important thing."
To him, it wasn't about recognition. It was about making sure that EOD soldier didn't die in vain. It was about improving the lives of ordinary Afghans. And it was about making sure fewer and fewer American soldiers have to look into the mouth of the dragon.
You wouldn't expect a patriot to feel any differently.
(Army Sgt. Jon E. Dougherty serves in the 203rd Engineer Battalion public affairs office.)