By Army Sgt. Jon E. Dougherty
Special to American Forces Press Service
Feb. 4, 2010 - The active-duty Army and National Guard members of a new route-clearance patrol formed here last month would experience many "firsts" in their maiden voyage.
For many members of the 17th Fires Brigade's 5th Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery, based at Joint Base McChord-Lewis, Wash., last week's opening mission marked the first time they'd served as part of a route-clearance unit – a job typically left to combat engineers.
The soldiers are taking on a substantially different role from their normal mission of manning multiple-launch rocket system batteries.
For the members of the Missouri Army National Guard's 203rd Engineer Battalion, it was their first time serving in a route-clearance capacity in Afghanistan with an active Army element. When the 203rd was ordered to mobilize in August, these citizen-soldiers initially were slated to perform a personnel security role, but that changed once they arrived here and the need for more route-clearance patrols became evident.
For all of them – who are collectively nicknamed the "Black Jacks" – the mission marked the first time they worked together "outside the wire" as a team.
The first time they went out they had their hands full.
While these route-clearance soldiers already were prepared to expect the unexpected, no one could have predicted they would engage in a three-hour vehicle recovery operation caused not by a roadside-bomb detonation, but by bad luck. But the experience proved to be extremely valuable and helped the unit come together as a team, the soldiers said later.
A few hours into the mission, the "Black Jacks" were preparing to turn around and begin the second phase of their operation when the lead mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle, an RG-31, suddenly sank three feet into a ditch that had been hidden by road work and softened by two days of rain and snow.
"Leader, this is Two," said the convoy's second vehicle, which had watched the incident unfold just ahead. "One is stuck. They're buried on their right side in mud up to their axle."
"Can we pull them out?" Leader responded.
"I don't know," said Two.
Unbeknownst to the convoy prior to the start of the mission, the local villagers had begun a project to lay new pipe across the roadway, which forced local traffic onto a much softer bypass. The smaller cars and trucks driven by Afghans had little problem negotiating the obstacle, but for the much-heavier MRAPs, the soggy, muddy bypass became a vehicle trap.
"We didn't have any intelligence that the roadway was out," said Army 1st Lt. Phil Kirk, originally from Waterloo, Ill., the route-clearance patrol platoon leader whose unit is attached to the 203rd Engineer Battalion. "When we got up there, we discovered the route was completely torn out.
"I thought our people on the ground definitely took charge and developed plans and made it happen," Kirk continued, noting that a few of his soldiers who had route-clearance experience from Iraq took control of the situation right away and began implementing possible solutions.
Local Afghans also took an immediate role in helping the Americans – much to the surprise of a number of convoy team members. One man offered the use of his road grader, which was parked nearby. And several Afghan National Police officers also arrived to help the Americans keep crowds away and locate more heavy equipment to pull their vehicle out.
"It was great how the [Afghan police] were able to go into the village and get the construction operators to bring their equipment, rollers and graders, out to assist in helping us get our vehicle out," Kirk said.
Initial attempts to dislodge the heavily armored vehicle using only the road grader proved unsuccessful, as the mud gripped the right side of the MRAP like a vise. But the Americans and Afghans soon realized they would need more than one vehicle – and other road-building support – to free it.
By the time the vehicle was freed, more than three hours had passed. It was well after dark, and the temperature had fallen well below freezing. But Kirk's patrol and their Afghan supporters never gave up. When one idea failed, another was tried. When the situation seemed hopeless, the soldiers were at their most professional.
"It could've gone better, maybe, but it was our first time out as our own element. It wasn't that bad," said Army Staff Sgt. Nathanial Muller, an MRAP vehicle commander and member of the 5-3rd Field Artillery Company, originally from Vancouver, Wash.
In a combat zone, no plan is ever perfect and few conditions are ever ideal. What's more, every soldier will tell you there is always a first time for everything, and how a unit collectively handles those unforeseen problems can indicate the way they will deal with future mission-related issues, both big and small.
If their first-time performance is any indication of future success, perhaps "Black Jack" is a new synonym for accomplishment.
(Army Sgt. Jon E. Dougherty serves with the 203rd Engineer Battalion.)