ZABUL PROVIDENCE, Afghanistan — “Clearing the way” is the battle cry you will hear when visiting the North Carolina National Guard’s 883rd Sapper Company whether you’re in the U.S. or in the Zabul Providence of Afghanistan, where they are currently deployed.
That cry has to do with the 883rd’s primary mission of clearing routes. The 833rd provides the framework and clear routes that enable freedom of movement for other coalition forces and the Afghanistan local populace.
“If it wasn’t for the work my guys’ do [clearing routes and gaining information for follow on forces] the other coalition forces would not be able to do their job,” said the company commander Army Capt. James McVeigh.
Route clearance is a grueling mission that can be as short as eight hours or as long as several days.
The trucks being driven are filled with equipment to help detect improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and communicate with other trucks in the convoy. This leaves little room for the Soldiers to sit comfortably with all of their personal protective equipment (PPE).
During the missions, the vehicles have to operate at a deliberate speed to ensure that they are capable of locating and identifying potential IEDs or other threats along the route. The dawdling speed has proven crucial to saving lives. Not only their own, but those of the coalition forces who count on the sappers to clear their paths.
“You have to have a lot of respect for these guys. They sit in these vehicles for over eight hours seeing the same terrain day after day. They have to be able to notice even the smallest changes in the terrain. They’re putting their lives on the line to ensure the safety of others ‘Always out front’ as one of the Sapper motto’s goes,” McVeigh said.
Before the break of the dawn the Soldiers of the second platoon “Hell Hounds” are up preparing for their mission. The platoon usually runs four missions a week; to date this would be about their 50th mission in country.
Army Spc. Samuel Carlin is a member of second platoon.
“I usually get up two hours before the mission brief and receive intelligence about our route to present during our brief,” Carlin said.
They attend the mandatory mission brief, which goes over the purpose of the mission and contingency plans should anything go wrong. After the brief the platoon leader conducts back briefs to make certain every Soldier understands their mission.
“You know, I expect my guys to give 100 percent and put their best foot forward. It’s important they know what is going on with the mission so that they can do their job,” said Army 1st Lt. Michael Hodge.
“Successfully completing our mission means that those who depend on us, can complete their own mission,” he said. “I need to be reassured that they do not become complacent. Clearing a route is important, but what’s most important is that I bring my guys back safely.”
After the back brief has been conducted, the Soldiers are released for a quick breakfast then they load up on their trucks to prepare for the mission.
The platoon leader requests to departs and once given the clearance, the platoon starts on what could be a life altering task.
“The rehearsals leading up to the missions are not able to properly incorporate things that may come up while on missions,” Carlin said. “Things like the over populated areas, how to interact with locals and dealing with the driving habits of the locals. But I really love this job. I hate the days when I’m not out on patrols.”
When outside of the wire Carlin does dismounted patrols. Whenever the convoy stops or comes across suspicious items, he proceeds from the safety of the vehicle and walks the terrain in order to get a better and closer look at the area.
Eleven hours later the convoy successfully returns from their mission. After refueling the vehicles and parking them back in the motor pool, they are released for dinner only to return for an after action review (AAR), which is run by the platoon sergeant.
The purpose of the AAR is to discuss what improvements are needed and what they succeeded at during the mission.
“I’ve only been the platoon sergeant for about three weeks now,” said Army Staff Sgt. Lance Hayes.” “Since I’ve gotten into this position I’ve seen steady improvements. I have full confidence in my guys, as long as they put their mind to it, they can accomplish anything.”
After the conclusion of the AAR the platoon leader ends the meeting by informing his Soldiers they have another early morning mission.
The air mixed with sighs of defeat and anxiousness to go out again. Finally the Soldiers are released to enjoy what is left of their night. They must prepare for the next mission and get a few hours of rest before another early morning rise.
“I’m fairly new to this company. From the beginning I could tell this was going to be a great marriage between the commander and myself. We just had the same thought process on how to run the company,” said Army 1st Sgt. Jason Zike.
“When I got here, I could tell the Soldiers were very disciplined, but seemed to lack that family connection,” he said. “I made it my mission to make everyone feel like a family. The commander and I have a birthday card program, where we give each guy a card for his birthday. I also requested game consoles, books, DVDs and DVD players for the ‘USO to go’ tent. I’m working with Bunkers in Bagdad to get golf balls, clubs and pants to create a driving range.
“It just helps relieves stress, which I know going out on these missions every day creates. I can tell it means a lot to them to know their command cares about their welfare. The guys really appreciate what we’re trying to do for them,” Zike said.
Families back home should have some peace of mind knowing the leadership at the 883rd cares so much for the Soldiers of the company. It is always the little things that count. A simple reminder that someone remembers your birthday, in a deployed environment, can truly make a difference to the Soldiers.
The 883rd served as North Carolina’s rapid reaction force since 2007, and were mobilized for a U.S. border protection mission in 2008. In August of 2011 the 883rd was mobilized to perform combat route clearance patrols throughout the Zabul province enabling freedom of movement for coalition forces and providing a stable environment for the people of Afghanistan. The 883rd falls under the 223rd Engineer Battalion/Task Force Knight in Afghanistan to help the continual efforts of the U.S. Army during Operation Enduring Freedom.