War on Terrorism

Friday, December 06, 2013

Engineers’ deployment marked by fateful patrol

by Jim Hart
JBER Public Affairs

12/6/2013 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- An American infantry platoon was patrolling near a compound in southern Afghanistan, not far from Kandahar, long identified as a trouble spot.

The Afghan National Army had taken many casualties in the vicinity, and U.S. Soldiers heard the enemy was defending a weapons cache. Whatever the reason behind the trouble, the infantry troops were out there for a purpose.

The persistent threat detection system (a tethered blimp with sensors) saw something of interest - a man planting an improvised explosive device. They needed to capture the suspect and remove the threat somehow.

He was bait.

Normally, this platoon would have brought along engineer support to clear any IEDs, but they had been sent out as a quick-reaction force and didn't have time.

Very soon, the dismounted patrol began hitting numerous IEDs. One by one, they exploded... killing or wounding Soldier after Soldier.

Before too long, four were dead, including their medic. Many more were wounded. Even the medevac helicopter set off at least one IED with rotor wash, but was still able to fly.
No place was safe. The enemies had booby-trapped shady spots and areas of cover - almost anywhere a Soldier would go. Some of the IEDs had pressure plates four feet in front of the device to kill or maim anyone walking up to investigate.

"It was a textbook-setup IED ambush," said Army Staff Sgt. Kandom Moore, 3rd Platoon squad leader with the 84th Engineer Support Company. "Anywhere you could go to hide, there was an IED."

The IEDs were so prolific and the area so dangerous, the men on the patrol weren't able to immediately secure all the remains of their buddies, or the equipment scattered by the explosions.

The patrol pulled security on site until their relief could come.

Relief comes in the night
The 84th Engineer Support Company got the call for help that night and made it out to the site a few hours later. They first came with an M-160 Light Flail -- an 11,000-pound, tank-like robot that beats the ground with chain "hammers" attached to a spinning drum.
They didn't make enough headway with the flail, so they came back the next morning. According to Moore, this time would be far more productive.

"We probably didn't go 150 meters in a twelve-hour period because we kept finding IED after IED after IED," Moore said.

They also fired an Anti-Personnel Obstacle Breaching System (a rocket-launched explosive line charge that replaced the famed Bangalore Torpedo). The APOBS destroyed an explosive belt that could have been used by a suicide bomber, or set up as an anti-personnel mine.

According to Moore and others, this mission was the most memorable, most stressful, and most honorable (by making it possible to recover the remains through disabling the other IEDs).

Overall, the platoon's high success rate with finding and neutralizing IEDs made them frequent companions with infantry patrols.

"Once we were (in theater), as long as the engineers were in front of them, there were no other IED strikes on infantry personnel," Moore said.

Despite this track record of success, IED clearance isn't normally the 84th ESC's forte.

Safety comes from training
The 84th ESC is a horizontal construction company; the unit normally builds roads and infrastructure when deployed. The Soldiers typically assigned to route clearance are combat engineers. According to the 84th ESC company commander, Army Capt. Mike Carvelli, this made for a significant change in how the unit trained and prepared.
"I took command last December, so there was a commander before me who took them through the training," Carvelli said. "He did a great job by seeing the skillset they had and translating that into the training they needed."

Additionally, they had another 35 days of training in theater to learn about specific equipment they would use. Each day during the deployment, the individual platoons trained for hours, with the noncommissioned officers setting up training lanes to test their platoon members' skills.

If mission success is an indicator, the training paid off handsomely.

During its nine-month deployment, the 84th ESC did not suffer a single casualty. The assigned members also have the honor of knowing not a single Afghan or International Security Assistance Force vehicle - or even one their own vehicles - was lost to an IED on routes the 84th ESC maintained.

"The junior Soldiers thought it was a little boring because of that, but a lot of the older Soldiers, the ones who've deployed before, have a lot of appreciation for the progress that's been made," Carvelli said.

In all, the 84th ESC was responsible for about 70 kilometers (42 miles) of roads. On those 70 kilometers, Carvelli estimates they cleared 12,000 kilometers (7,200 miles) during the course of the deployment. They found 38 ready IEDs, and numerous pieces and parts such as batteries, charges, detonators and other components commonly used to make explosive weapons.

This was the first, and likely last, deployment to Operation Enduring Freedom for the 84th ESC. The unit will inactivate in September, 2014, as part of the Army's drawdown. It has been inactivated five times in the past. The last time the 84th ESC inactivated was in April 2005.

For the Soldiers, it's an honorable finish.

"We've got five campaign streamers on the guidon, and it was pretty significant to put on a new one, knowing it will probably be the last one for the duration of the Afghanistan deployment," Carvelli said. "It was humbling and exciting to be a part of the history of a company that's been around since the end of World War II - it's been a great experience, and people keep talking about it."

The mission and Soldiers will be absorbed by other engineer units in Alaska and elsewhere. It's unknown when, where or if the 84th ESC will stand up again.

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