VFW Magazine March 2011 : Page 20

Hounding Taliban the 203rd Combat Engineers in Afghanistan PHOTO BY SGT. JON DOUGHERTY By Richard K. Kolb For the Sapper companies of this Missouri National Guard unit, defeating the enemy meant taking their primary weapon—roadside bombs—head on. Here is a firsthand look at the unit’s mission, a snapshot taken in May 2010. Above: Explosive ordnance disposal technicians blow up three IEDs in place in Paktika province, Afghanistan, in April 2010. Left: Devices used to detonate an IED were found on a patrol. Dismounts on foot often find the ingredients for roadside bombs. All other photos by Rich Kolb. 20 • VFW •March 2011

Hounding The Taliban: 203rd Combat Engineers In Afghanistan

Richard K. Kolb

For the Sapper companies of this Missouri National Guard unit, defeating the enemy meant taking their primary weapon—roadside bombs—head on. Here is a firsthand look at the unit’s mission, a snapshot taken in May 2010.<br /> <br /> i T starts with a prayer.Members of a 203rd Combat Engineer Battalion’s route clearance package (RCP) all gather round, often with hands on shoulders. 1st Lt. Travis Miller, platoon leader of RCP 37, recites a solemn prayer as protection against what awaits engineers on the lethal roads of Afghanistan. This is a quick gesture, but one that provided some semblance of solace during their 11 months in-country between late October 2009 and mid- September 2010.<br /> <br /> Their mission: detect and destroy the dreaded IED, or improvised explosive device, more commonly known as a roadside bomb. Such missions have ushered in a new mode of warfare, unique to Iraq and Afghanistan, at least in the history of American arms.<br /> <br /> “Route clearance has become an increasingly all-consuming mission for the Army’s combat engineers,” Sydney Freedberg wrote in the National Journal. “The counter-mine mission has morphed into a constant battle against IEDs.”<br /> <br /> While uncovering land mines has been an objective in all modern wars, in these two war zones it has been refined to an art. Route clearance—countering IEDs—is the responsibility of combat engineer units, historically and currently known as sappers.<br /> <br /> However, only a few officially rate that title. To earn the Army’s prestigious Sapper Tab, a soldier must complete a 28-day Sapper Leader Course. Sappers support the infantry in direct fire missions. The regular Army, Marine Corps and National Guard all field Sapper outfits. And they are specialized for good reason.<br /> <br /> Enemy No. 1: The IED<br /> <br /> IED incidents in Afghanistan skyrocketed from 81 in 2003 to 8,159 in 2009. In 2010, more than 60% of all hostile U.S. deaths (268) were caused by IEDS. These devices wounded 3,366 more Americans. Since the war started, 55% of all U.S. hostile deaths (617) in Afghanistan have been caused by explosive devices; they wounded 5,752 Gis.<br /> <br /> Roadside bombs reach up to 1,000 pounds, with those most commonly encountered at 100, 200 and 500 pounds. Though they hold potential for immense Destruction, only 10% of IEDs actually kill or wound allied troops. This is a testament to the effectiveness of combat engineers. Spotting them is largely an intuitive, innate skill. “Natural hunters” with this sixth sense possess three traits: vigilance, precise memory and visual acuity. The best at the trade are often from rural backgrounds who hunted while growing up.<br /> <br /> “Technology is great,” says Lt.Col. Eric Goser, director of the Counter Explosive Hazards Center at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., “but it’s still the human that needs to know how and where to deploy.” In fact, 85% of IEDS are found by “human eyeball.” This is often done by skillfully observing command wires connecting roadside bombs.<br /> <br /> Trigger mechanisms vary in sophistication. They can be command-detonated, radio-controlled, booby traps or set off with a cell phone. Switching methods include pressure plates, spring-loaded releases, push, pull, tilt or command wires. Plastic jugs full of homemade explosives made from fertilizer can be triggered by a simple command wire.<br /> <br /> Vehicles have been specially adapted to deal with IEDs. Huskies—wheeled vehicles with v-shaped hulls resembling front loaders—lead route clearance teams with Ground-penetrating radars and metal detectors mounted on the front arm. The Buffalo Mine Protected Clearance Vehicle is 13 feet high and weighs 26-plus tons. Its remote-controlled, 30-foot hydraulic arm is used to handle suspected explosive devices and clear routes.<br /> <br /> Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles (MRAPs), gun trucks, provide security. Weapons include the MK19 automatic grenade launcher, .50-caliber M2 machine gun, M240B machine gun And the M249 light machine gun. Wreckers usually complete a package on convoy.<br /> <br /> Command Sgt. Maj. Steve Stuenkel, who served with Missouri’s 135th Rear Operational Cell in Iraq (2003-04), is intimately familiar with this equipment and the men who man it. “Serving with the 203rd in Afghanistan was one of the highlights of my National Guard career,” he says. “I have never known a finer group of Americans.”<br /> <br /> Redefining Combat<br /> <br /> Because of the nature of the enemy and the technology employed to fight him, some aspects of combat have been redefined. The fact is that many times Gis are facing an inanimate object, not a living human being.Consequently, the services Have adapted, modifying the awards system to accommodate the circumstances.<br /> <br /> Recognizing “the evolution of warfare and the realities of the modern battlefield” where troops are engaged in a “tactical conflict,” the Marine Corps changed its rules for awarding the Combat Action Ribbon. Beginning in May 2005, the Army also acknowledged the facts of terrorist warfare by including direct exposure to suicide bomber and IED attacks as qualifiers for its then-newly created Combat Action Badge (CAB).<br /> <br /> Perhaps the new regulations regarding the Purple Heart are most reflective of this trend. Traumatic brain injury (TBI) caused by an IED concussion qualifies for the award. The Army’s list of wounds that “clearly justify” the Purple Heart includes “concussion injuries caused as a result of enemy-generated explosions.” The Marine Corps requires that a Marine be knocked unconscious to receive the Purple Heart for mild TBI. New Army rules also limit soldiers to a maximum of five concussions to prevent Long-term mild TBI.<br /> <br /> The 203rd’s casualties in Afghanistan are a good example of why these changes were made. Of 72 Purple Hearts awarded for wounds, virtually all were due to IEDS, and most were for concussions.<br /> <br /> Unique Battleground<br /> <br /> Combat engineers fight two enemies: the Taliban and terrain. Some 77% of Afghanistan’s roads are unpaved. Regional Command East, where the 203rd operated, includes 14 provinces encircling Kabul, the capital.<br /> <br /> An area the size of Pennsylvania, it is home to 400 tribes living near the Hindu Kush, a 500-mile mountain range harboring 15,000-foot peaks with treacherous passes like the world-famous Khyber Pass. The northeast provinces border Pakistan and its notorious tribal regions.<br /> <br /> The 203rd’s area of responsibility roughly equaled the land mass of West Virginia. Its stomping grounds included four provinces. Units were based out of Forward Operating Bases (FOB) Sharana, Ghazni and Salerno, for instance. Operations often cleared the way to remote combat outposts (COPs).<br /> <br /> Treacherous terrain and proximity to the Pakistan border plays right into the hands of the Taliban and assorted enemies. Here, Arab and other foreign recruits linked to al Qaeda easily infiltrate across the porous Pakistan border. Perhaps one in three of those crossing the border is an Arab.<br /> <br /> Today’s “Talibs” (Taliban) are fanatically committed to the cause of driving the Americans out and restoring their tyrannical rule. They are much more radical than their elders who fought the Soviets two decades ago. Some 80% are in their teens or early 20s; half the field commanders are under 30.<br /> <br /> The Missouri and other Guardsmen would get a firsthand taste of this fanaticism before the 203rd’s tour was up. IED attacks, indirect fire and small-arms ambushes became a not uncommon part of the regular routine.<br /> <br /> Organized for the Mission<br /> <br /> The 203rd is a prime example of how the regular Army,National Guard and Army Reserve integrate in the war zone. It reported to the 372nd Engineer Brigade (Reserve) from Minnesota, which fell under the 82nd Airborne Division and later the 101st. Stateside, the battalion comes under the 35th Engineer Brigade at Fort Leonard Wood,Mo.<br /> <br /> In Afghanistan, the Houn’ Dawgs, as the 203rd is nicknamed, commanded an assortment of companies. Three are based in Missouri: Headquarters, Forward Support and the 1141st (Sapper). Two other Sapper companies—211th (South Dakota) and 810th (Georgia)— rounded out the National Guard contribution. Also in the mix was the 693rd Sapper Company, a regular Army unit based out of Fort Drum, N.Y., and A Btry., 5th Bn., 3rd Field Arty, from Fort Lewis,Wash. Later in its tour, the 203rd took Mississippi’s 287th Sapper Company under its wing.<br /> <br /> Missouri’s battalion was not new to overseas deployments. In 1997, it did a stint in the Balkans (Macedonia) and served on a construction mission in Iraq from 2003-04.<br /> <br /> Each Sapper company is made up of three platoons or route clearance packages. A typical convoy consists of five gun trucks, one Buffalo, two Huskies and a wrecker/maintenance vehicle for recovering damaged vehicles. Personnel include drivers, truck commanders, gunners, dismounts and/or camera operators. Medics, explosive ordnance disposal techs, Afghan interpreters (“Terps”) and dog handlers are commonly part of the package.<br /> <br /> Bomb-sniffing canines accompanied by their MP handlers can be valuable assets. The best breeds for detection work are German shepherds, Labradors and Belgian Malinois, with the latter rated highest. But they pay a price, too— 10 dogs reportedly have been killed in action overall in Afghanistan and Iraq.<br /> <br /> Outside the Wire<br /> <br /> Combat engineers take pride in the fact that they regularly venture beyond the safe confines of FOBs. Those who do not are derisively dismissed as “FOBits.” Taking such risks contributes greatly to Esprit de corps, as it always has.<br /> <br /> Kansas City’s “Bloodhounds” of the 1141st Sapper Company lived up to their motto of “This Dog Hunts.” They conducted 360 clearance patrols covering 11,406 miles and found 178 IEDs.<br /> <br /> Helping make this all happen were the six men manning the Tactical Operations Center. Sgt. Don Ferguson, a Marine vet who later joined the Guard, says proudly, “We made one heck of a team.”<br /> <br /> The company’s CO, Capt. Brian Sayer, is highly experienced at IED warfare.He survived 25 blasts and endured 10 concussions during two tours in Iraq, earning him four Purple Hearts. “Route clearance as we know it today is unique to these wars,” he says. “The equipment is totally different from previous conflicts. Clearance was in its infancy in Iraq in 2003-04. But the vehicles we are using in Afghanistan are incredible.”<br /> <br /> Nonetheless, the dangers are all too real. “Our company has the highest IED find rate in the battalion,” he said. “Using innovative detection methods paid off. Generally, the IEDs were planted by individuals or pairs of Afghans. A lot of the motivation for the attacks was just plain financial—they were paid to do it by the Taliban.”<br /> <br /> Staff Sgt. Sean Parker, a truck commander in the 1141st and two-tour Iraq vet, knows the perils of clearing Afghanistan’s roads firsthand. He was in a vehicle that was taken out by a suicide car bomber and spent two weeks in the hospital. “We got hit by a 250- pound car bomb that blew the Buffalo 30 feet and turned it 180 degrees,” he vividly recalls. “The hatches blew wide open. Fire engulfed the whole vehicle, it Resembled a flaming fireball. I had to be medevaced back to base.”<br /> <br /> Sgt. Steve Gillespie, a Buffalo driver who also served in Iraq, is one of the 203rd’s VFW members. “I joined in 2007 while passing through Fort McCoy in Wisconsin upon my return from Iraq,” he said. “I value the camaraderie. Fellow war vets can genuinely relate to what you have been through.”<br /> <br /> Tracing the Wires<br /> <br /> They are called dismounts. These are the men who exit the vehicle to trace the source, sometimes more than 1,600 yards away, of IEDs the old-fashioned way: on foot. Six dismounts—three on each side—span out to cover both sides of the route. On occasion, they actually capture the triggermen. For engineers who have the MOS of 21 Bravo, this is not an unexpected duty. As one soldier remarked, in this capacity, they are playing the role of infantrymen.<br /> <br /> Lt.Mitchell Boatright led 2nd Platoon or RCP 7. A veteran of a previous Afghanistan tour and of Kosovo, he says “the patrols try to remain unpredictable by doing unconventional things. This really made an impact, leading to 70 [later 98] IED finds. But because we pull the plug on IEDs, that makes us a target for the Taliban. Still, it is essential to be aggressive and keep them off guard by conducting pre-emptive clearance.”<br /> <br /> Sgt. Bucksly Barnhill understands that objective well. After finding an element to an IED, he spoke for many when he said, “It may not seem like much, but this component contributes to the deaths of far too many people. Finding them helps save lives, both American and Afghan.”<br /> <br /> Patrolling out in the field is preferable to being confined at FOBs, at least for some soldiers. Spc. Jacob Cook, an Iraq vet, likes the camaraderie of the 203rd, so he eagerly went on the Afghanistan deployment. “On foot patrols you have the opportunity to cross the countryside and intermingle with villagers. Not to mention the satisfaction of being part of discovering an IED wire,” he said.<br /> <br /> Sgt. Jon Dougherty, battalion public affairs NCO, doubled as a dismount when he covered missions. “When I was Out with Lt. Boatright searching for command wires, we were pinned down in a wheat field,” he recalls. “We had to low-crawl through irrigation ditches because there was no cover. Tracer rounds went over our heads, but we were not able to return fire. It only lasted two or three minutes, but it seems much longer in situations like that.”<br /> <br /> Command Sgt. Maj. Stuenkel agrees that soldiers on foot are vital to the mission. “Engineers on the ground with their ability to rationalize the situation make all the difference,” he says. “The human element is the key to the battalion’s success. Our unit encountered IEDs ranging from 35 to 250 pounds. Sometimes they were found the hard way. A vehicle of the 810th from Georgia hit a 200 pounder on March 16, 2010, and three men ended up in Walter Reed hospital.”<br /> <br /> ‘We’ve Made Contact!’<br /> <br /> In past wars, it was called a firefight. In today’s Army jargon, it is “troops-incontact.” But to the men in the field, it’s simply a “tic.”For combat engineers, that usually means an ambush after encountering an IED. A “complex ambush” involves small arms, rockets and mortars. They usually last less than five minutes. Still, gunners in the turret can return fire only if they positively identify a target.<br /> <br /> May 8, 2010, will most likely stick in the minds of the members of 3rd Platoon/RCP 9, 1141st Company, for the remainder of their lives.What started out as a relatively routine run along the route to Gardez ended up as anything but a standard operation.<br /> <br /> “We were about 80 klicks [50 miles] into the mission, not far from FOB Hardball, when the crap hit the fan,” said Sgt. 1st Class Marcus Arganbright, truck commander of the lead vehicle and acting platoon leader that day. “As is common in such complex ambushes, first an IED exploded followed by IDF [indirect fire, i.e., mortar rounds].”<br /> <br /> Apparently, RCP 9 interrupted an ambush in progress. The Taliban were actually targeting a much smaller and vulnerable patrol of B Trp., 1st Sqdn., 33rd Cav, 101st Abn. Div., consisting of only four vehicles. Hidden among the rugged switchbacks, which resemble the mountainous terrain of Arizona, above the road, the Afghans sprang their trap simultaneously.<br /> <br /> Despite an estimated eight mortar rounds crashing around the lead vehicle The convoy was determined to push through two abandoned vans blocking the road. “We were taught to always keep moving when ambushed,” said Arganbright. The vehicles ran the gauntlet through the pass despite being raked by automatic weapons fire.<br /> <br /> “It was hard to know what was going on with all the smoke and noise until we stopped later to assess the damage,” said Sgt. Dennis Kilgore, a driver whose truck was peppered by small-arms rounds<br /> <br /> Staff Sgt. Chad Waters was in the Buffalo,which was positioned at the center of the convoy. “All hell broke loose after that first IED went off,” he said. “An RPG round actually welded itself into the center panel of the Buffalo, fortunately doing only minor damage. It was the darnedest thing to see. The panel did its job.While in the kill sac, four or five other RPG rounds missed us. Mortar rounds struck nearby, too.”<br /> <br /> The ambush, while deadly serious, provided a rare opportunity to release some pent-up frustration about never being able to target the enemy. And the gunners took full advantage of the situa Situation, firing approximately 2,000 rounds up the mountainside at the Taliban. An estimated 30-man cell, an unusually large number, staged the attack. (Islamic indoctrination centers in neighboring Pakistan send a steady stream of recruits across the border to wage jihad.)<br /> <br /> “My targets consisted of puffs of smoke after enemy weapons were fired,” said Spc. Denis Kisseloff. “Their fire may have included recoilless rifle. One of the other gunners resorted to firing his M4 rifle while retrieving more ammo for his MK19. Iraq was a picnic compared to here. These guys are warriors and they like to fight.”<br /> <br /> Sgt. 1st Class Bradley Burkhart wryly recalled: “We had enough fun to last a lifetime. I don’t know how we ever made it through that run.”<br /> <br /> 3rd Platoon leader 1st Lt. Charles Garbet, who missed the ambush because he was going on leave, regretted his absence. “It was a heck of a time not to be there,” he said, “but it is nice to know how well the men of the platoon performed under fire.”<br /> <br /> Convoy gunners, infantrymen and a Kiowa helicopter combined took out a dozen of the enemy that day.<br /> <br /> A sad postscript: When RCP 9 was conducting another mission in Logar province six days later, Sgt.Kisseloff was killed by an RPG round.<br /> <br /> Bird-Dogging on the Flatlands<br /> <br /> The 211th Engineer Company (the “Coyotes”), headquartered in Madison, S. D., patrolled the barren flatlands around Sharana. In disarming 139 IEDs, its 113 men were awarded 18 Purple Hearts during the deployment. It completed 390 missions over 19,214 miles.<br /> <br /> Gun trucks have three-man crews: a commander, driver and gunner. Company 1st Sgt. Wade Hofer was a truck commander on a patrol of the “Big Dogs” (RCP 10) last May. An Iraq vet, he said his platoon had found five IEDS in one day, a record for his company. “But the frustration is great because we rarely have the opportunity to directly engage the enemy,” he said.<br /> <br /> No matter how trying the circumstances, there are always men willing to do the job. For Spc. Patrick Wagner, military service is a family affair. “My brother served in Iraq and I joined the South Dakota National Guard in 2003,” he said. “Though combat engineers may not be in the public eye, we are doing our part to protect American, as well as Afghan civilian, lives.”<br /> <br /> Pfc. Jacob Busser said he would attend Dakota State University to become a teacher when he got home. “Being part of the overall mission is gratifying; it saves a lot of lives,” he pointed out. “Our company did its share, so we can take pride in that accomplishment.”<br /> <br /> As the RCP 10 convoy entered a village last May, it was eerily quiet. Inhabitants seemed to disappear when the Americans arrived. One old man, through an interpreter, explained that the Taliban often frequented his village and intimidated the people. Consequently, during the patrol, any vehicles approaching the convoy were thoroughly checked for contraband. It was all in a day’s work.<br /> <br /> Other Companies Serving, Too<br /> <br /> The third 203rd Sapper company, the 810th (“Hellhounds”) based in Swainsboro, Ga., operated out of FOB Ghazni. Because of the mountainous terrain, its convoys were especially susceptible to ambushes. In one IED attack in July, two of its members were killed in action (see In Tribute). Nonetheless, the company’s 80 members completed 328 route clearance missions, clearing 15,916 miles of road during their deployment.<br /> <br /> Later in its tour, the 203rd gained another Sapper company—the 287th from around Lucedale, Miss., which headquartered at FOB Lightning.<br /> <br /> All logistics for the battalion are handled by the Forward Support Company. “We conduct combat logistics patrols to the Sapper companies and other units to keep them supplied with all the necessities from food to fuel,” said Staff Sgt. Hubert Garren. “Patrols average a week in duration with a day or two at COPs. Afghanistan is more difficult to get around than Iraq because of the geography, and it poses more of a threat.”<br /> <br /> Mission Complete<br /> <br /> By the time the 203rd’s tour ended, it had four men killed and 72 wounded (a minority of whom were hospitalized). Five of its gun trucks, four Huskies and five Buffalos were destroyed. The engineers recorded 74 engagements and Took indirect fire 139 times. Some 424 members earned the Combat Action Badge. Army Commendation medals with V device totaled 26; Bronze Stars for valor, seven.<br /> <br /> It conducted 1,516 missions clearing 66,936 miles of routes. Encountering 541 IEDs, it actually found 408 of them for a 75% find rate.<br /> <br /> Maj. Mike Brown, then-forward executive officer at Headquarters Company and a 203rd 2003-04 Iraq vet, says he “served with a great bunch of guys. The relationships established in Iraq and Afghanistan will last a lifetime. I cannot praise these soldiers enough.”<br /> <br /> Lt. Col. Tony Adrian, battalion commander, was equally magnanimous with his compliments. “The 203rd can Be immensely proud of its track record in Afghanistan. Our mission was to clear roads of IEDs, and, in doing so, save lives. I think our success rate in finding roadside bombs shows we accomplished it. But we should never forget that it was done so at the cost of four brave men’s lives.”<br /> <br /> A chance encounter with Sgt. Brad Exline, an 82nd Airborne Division vet of three years worth of tours in Afghanistan, underscored the respect due the combat engineers. Shaking his head in amazement, he said, “Those route clearance guys have and do a hell of a job.” Indeed, they do.<br /> <br /> Engineers Out Front in Every War<br /> <br /> “Combat engineers go unrecognized for what they do in combat zones,” said Vietnam vet Thomas Clark. “They have gone to war and risked their lives every day since World War II.”<br /> <br /> Here is a brief overview of that service in six wars.<br /> <br /> WWII to the Persian Gulf<br /> <br /> During WWII, combat engineers—sometimes serving as infantrymen—paid their dues in blood. Some 7,158 Army engineers were killed in action: 5,508 (77%) in the European Theater and 1,612 (23%) in the Pacific Theater. The remainder died in transit.<br /> <br /> “Engineers were committed as infantry during the tactical emergencies everywhere in Europe and North Africa,” according to The Corps of Engineers: The War Against Germany (1985). Engineers earned their combat accolades, too. For example, at St. Vith amidst the Battle of the Bulge, the 81st Engineer Combat Battalion (ECB) garnered the prestigious Presidential Unit Citation (PUC)—equivalent to the Distinguished Service Cross— for its role in defeating the Germans.<br /> <br /> On the other side of the world in Burma, the 209th and 236th Engineer Combat battalions participated in a grueling Two-month campaign in 1944, sustaining 127 KIA and 291 WIA after being pressed into service as infantry. They, too, received the PUC. On Okinawa, the 302nd ECB suffered 20% casualties in one three-week period.<br /> <br /> Korea once again saw engineers fighting as infantrymen. The 2nd, 3rd, 13th and 14th Engineers all played pivotal roles in key battles at places like Yongsan, the Naktong River, the Yalu River and Pork Chop Hill. Among Army battle deaths, engineers counted 862. Another 1,844 were wounded in action. Eight ECBs fought in the war as part of a division, 21 separately and three as independent companies.<br /> <br /> In Vietnam, engineers constituted 10% of Army troops Serving there. Among them were 20 combat engineer battalions— seven divisional and 13 separate. An additional eight brigade or other independent combat engineer companies served. All these units combined lost 609 KIA.<br /> <br /> One of those KIAs was awarded the Medal of Honor. Cpl. Terry T. Kawamura of the 173rd Eng. Co., 173rd Abn. Bde., threw himself on a satchel charge in Camp Radcliff at An Khe, saving several lives, but sacrificing his own.<br /> <br /> The PUC was awarded to three entire combat engineer battalions (4th, 8th and 70th), three companies, one detachment, three platoons and one squad. The 4th ECB received two PUCs for separate battles in 1967. The 8th and 70th battalions both earned theirs during the Ia Drang Valley/Pleiku campaign in the fall of 1965. The 8th lost five KIA.<br /> <br /> It was not until May 2010 that Tom Clark’s unit, the 137th Engineer Company, finally received the Valorous Unit Award (VUA). As part of the 19th ECB, the 137th performed exceptional service from mid-1967 to the end of 1968. The 19th Battalion suffered 105 KIA and 400 WIA during that time.<br /> <br /> Engineers again stood out in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The 1st ECB, including the attached A and D companies from the 9th Engineers, received the VUA for breaching enemy defenses. Tennessee’s 212th Eng. Co. Led in Kuwait. Seven engineers of 1st Plt., A Co., 27th Eng. Bn., 20th Eng. Bde., died clearing cluster bombs at As Salman Airfield in Iraq on Feb. 26.<br /> <br /> Iraq and Afghanistan<br /> <br /> At the beginning of the Iraq War, on April 4, 2003, Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith of 2nd Plt., B Co., 11th Eng. Bn., 3rd ID, performed heroically in Baghdad. Expending 300 rounds from His .50-caliber machine gun, he killed 50 of the enemy and is credited with saving 100 American lives. His Medal of Honor was posthumous, and the first for an engineer in 34 years.<br /> <br /> Combat engineers have been claimed far too often by the very devices they seek to destroy. IEDs inflicted multiple fatalities in four single actions in Iraq. A suicide bomber was the culprit in another action. Starting on March 31, 2004, five soldiers of the 1st ECB were KIA in Habbaniyah, the engineers’ worst single loss in Iraq. On Aug. 3, 2005, three Georgia National Guardsmen of the 648th ECB were killed by a suicide bomber in Baghdad.<br /> <br /> The year 2006 was not a good one for engineers. On July 8 in Ramadi, three men of the 54th ECB died in an explosion. Then on Nov. 11, three engineers of the 16th ECB were killed in that same city. Tragically, on Christmas, three members of the 9th ECB lost their lives in Baghdad.<br /> <br /> Roadside bombs in Afghanistan also have taken a toll among engineers. On March 12, 2006, four reservists of the Army Reserve’s 391st ECB were KIA near Asadabad. In 2007 on Aug. 28, three men of the 864th ECB perished in Jaji. On Oct. 15, 2009, four Gis of the 4th ECB died in Kandahar province. Last July 14, four soldiers in the 27th ECB made the ultimate sacrifice in Zabul province.<br /> <br /> To date, 238 engineers have been killed in Iraq and 57 in Afghanistan. The Engineer Memorial Wall in “Sapper Cove” at Fort Leonard Wood., Mo., will eventually honor them.<br /> <br /> Throughout all of America’s wars, the courage of combat engineers has been clearly demonstrated. Fifteen Medals of Honor are proof enough: Civil War (3), Indian campaigns (1), WWI (1), WWII (5), Korea (3), Vietnam (1) and Iraq (1).<br /> <br /> National Guard in the Thick of Things<br /> <br /> Ever since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the Army National Guard (ANG) has been used increasingly overseas. Iraq especially saw an unprecedented deployment of Guard units in combat. Their casualties attest to this use.<br /> <br /> In Iraq, ANG hostile deaths numbered 365, or 18% of the Army total.<br /> <br /> Some 25% of the wounded hailed from Guard outfits equaling 4,119. In a single IED attack in Baghdad on Jan. 6, 2005, six Louisiana guardsmen of C Co., 2nd Bn., 156th Inf. Regt., perished.<br /> <br /> Proportionately, Afghanistan has not seen quite as high a tally. The 106 hostile Guard deaths there equate to 16.5% of The Army total. Whereas their 957 WIA represent 18% of all U.S. wounded.<br /> <br /> Guard courage is evident in other ways, too. Staff Sgt. Timothy Nein of the Kentucky National Guard’s 617th MP Company was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his heroism on March 20, 2005, at Salman Pak, Iraq.<br /> <br /> National Guardsmen have served in virtually every capacity in both war zones, including all the combat arms. They continue to play a vital battlefield role in Afghanistan.<br /> <br /> 101st on the Front Lines<br /> <br /> Fighting in the same area of operations as the 203rd, the 187th Infantry Regiment (“Rakkasans”), 101st Airborne Division, traversed Khost, Paktika and Paktya provinces. Combat outposts, such as Sabari and Chergotah, occupied by the Screaming Eagles were likely clearing destinations for the engineers.<br /> <br /> The 101st, however, in 2010 was spread throughout Afghanistan. With 20,000—all four of its brigade combat teams and aviation brigade—troops incountry, the division constituted 20% of total U.S. forces there.<br /> <br /> And no unit was hit harder by the enemy, sustaining one in five U.S. deaths in 2010. By year’s end, 105 members of the division had been killed right through Dec. 31. (During its 2005-06 Iraq tour, it had 105 members killed.) Between March and August alone, 41 were KIA and 400 WIA.<br /> <br /> The Taliban used all means to kill the paratroopers, and all too often in multiple numbers in single actions. On June 7 in Konar, the 2nd Bn., 327th Inf. Regt. (IR), lost four men to a roadside bomb.<br /> <br /> Non-hostile incidents occurred as well. A UH-60 Black Hawk crash-landing in Dalat on Sept. 21 claimed five aviators of the 101st Avn. Bde. The deaths of four sailors aboard brought the total to nine, the worst such toll in four years. Then on Nov. 13 in Kandahar province, a suicide bomber detonated his vest, killing three paratroopers of the 2nd Bn., 502nd IR.<br /> <br /> In what is a relatively rare action in Afghanistan, five airborne soldiers of A Co., 1st Bn., 327th IR, were KIA by small-arms fire in a firefight on Nov. 14. For Americans, that is a high tally in a single engagement. The six-hour gun battle occurred during Operation Bulldog Bite, a clearing mission in the Watapur Valley, a main artery of the Pech River Valley.<br /> <br /> A lone gunman struck two weeks later, on Nov. 28, at an Afghan army post south of Jalalabad. In 10 split seconds, an Afghan Border policeman murdered six Gis of the 1st Sqdn., 61st Cav Regt.<br /> <br /> Driving a minibus loaded with 1,000 pounds of explosives, a terrorist drove his vehicle near enough to blow up a building in the Zhari district on Dec. 12. The explosion collapsed the structure, which fell on members of B Co., 2nd Bn., 502nd IR, killing six and wounding 11.<br /> <br /> As 2010 ended, 101st paratroopers were fully engaged along the Pakistan border and elsewhere. The 3rd BCT returned home in January.<br /> <br /> VFW Offers Support on the Home Front<br /> <br /> While the 203rd engineers were on the front lines in Afghanistan, back home in Missouri and South Dakota local VFW Posts were doing their parts.<br /> <br /> Post 4288 in Corder, Mo., went above and beyond in backing the troops. Of its 110 members, about 25% are Afghanistan and Iraq vets, including hometown boys discharged from the service and area Guardsmen. “Our Post held dinners to raise funds and provided us with many care packages,” said Steve Stuenkel.<br /> <br /> Post 4282 in Perryville, Mo., did likewise. It is a model for all Posts to emulate, providing care packages and arranging elaborate welcome homes for members. “My Post is the center of social life with a family atmosphere and games for kids,” says Don Ferguson. “About one-third of our members are from the current wars. With 370 total members, we get a fabulous turnout at meetings.”<br /> <br /> South of Springfield in Clever, Mo., a brand-new Post arose in 2009. And most of its members were from the 203rd Engineers. “Post leadership and members alike saw to it that we received care packages, our families had help when needed, and troop events were sponsored,” says Mike Brown. “Post 12078 could not have been more supportive than it was during our year in Afghanistan.”<br /> <br /> Madison, S.D., home to the 211th Engineer Company, was not to be outdone. In true Midwestern fashion, Post 2638 did a great job of offering hospitality. “Our local VFW sponsors a family picnic each year,” said Wade Hofer. “But that is only a small part of what it does. Dick Stearns did a tremendous amount of work on our behalf. The Post paid for $6,000 worth of bus tickets to get us from Fort McCoy, Wis., back home to Madison after training.”

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