VFW Magazine March 2011 : Page 21

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-coun-try between late October 2009 and mid-September 2010. 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. “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 mor-phed into a constant battle against IEDs.” 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 current-ly known as sappers. 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 mis-sions. The regular Army,Marine Corps and National Guard all field Sapper outfits. And they are specialized for good reason. Enemy No. 1: The IED IED incidents in Afghanistan skyrocket-ed 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 explo-sive devices; they wounded 5,752 GIs. 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 tes-tament 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. “Technology is great,”says Lt.Col. Eric Goser, director of the Counter Explosive 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. 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 Staff Sgt. Sean Parker, battalion Command Sgt. Maj. Steve Stuenkel and Sgt. Steve Gillespie of the 203rd Combat Engineer Battalion relax beside a Buffalo at Forward Operating Base Salerno, Afghanistan, after returning from a mission in May 2010. 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. Trigger mechanisms vary in sophisti-cation. They can be command-detonat-ed, 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. Vehicles have been specially adapted to deal with IEDs. Huskies—wheeled vehi-cles with v-shaped hulls resembling front loaders—lead route clearance teams with and the M249 light machine gun. Wreckers usually complete a package on convoy. 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 ofmyNational Guard career,” he says. “I have never known a finer group ofAmericans.” Redefining Combat Because of the nature of the enemy and the technology employed to fight him, some aspects of combat have been rede-fined.The fact is that many times GIs are facing an inanimate object, not a living human being.Consequently, the services March 2011 • WWW.VFW.ORG • 21

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