Soldiers assigned to the 510th Route Clearance Company, 20th Engineer Battalion, conduct a route clearance patrol in Kandahar City, Afghanistan. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Ernesto Hernandez Fonte)
KANDAHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan (Dec. 10, 2010) — In the still pre dawn hours, a loud cry of “Hooah” can be heard crackling through the cold early morning air that consumes the troops of 510 Route Clearance Company, 20th Engineer Battalion on guard at Combat Outpost Caron.
“Hooaah,” exclaims Sgt. 1st Class Frederick Greenwell from Evansville, Ind., “I’m motivated!”
He jumps on and shakes the Soldiers who aren’t already awake.
“It’s that initial reaction to the cold when you get out of your sleeping bag that is the worst,” says Greenwell about himself and his soldiers who slept under the stars and alongside their vehicles in a base that was their home for the day.
He is a platoon sergeant and is responsible for 32 soldiers, his Joes, a term of endearment used by sergeants for the soldiers they take charge of. The company conducts route clearance missions, removing explosive hazards from the road.
“Basically, our mission is to conduct route clearance patrols; to look for and remove explosive hazards in some of the major movement and supply routes around Kandahar City in order to give Coalition forces freedom of movement throughout our area of operations,” said Greenwell.
The success of their mission is critical and it’s not an easy affair. Their enemy has been practicing guerilla warfare for more than 30 years and includes skilled foreign fighters as well as bomb makers who favor standoff tactics.
“Being successful means we aren’t blown up and the people on the routes behind us don’t get hit; finding the IED before it finds you or anyone else,” said Spc. Dackeren Moore from Sabula, Iowa. “It keeps the local nationals safe, no civilian get’s injured. We clear the routes so American soldiers can move without being worried about getting blown up as they resupply the smaller bases with water and food or complete other missions.”
The platoon uses a culmination of their training, vigilance, high tech tools, heavily armored vehicles, developed tactics/techniques and most importantly “change detection” to defeat these threats.
“Our biggest indicator is change detection which means our ability to detect changes in the area around roads. We’ve been through the area so much, we know the terrain and behavior of the locals,” said Greenwell. “We’ve been doing this for ten months now; the slightest change stands out to us and will lead us to investigate further, look for more indicators of an explosive hazard and see if there is or isn’t a danger present.”
Frustrating for the platoon, their convoys move the slowest and they don’t cover the distances other units reach in a day. The platoon doesn’t mind though.
“Route clearance is one of the most important missions in Afghanistan. We are basically responsible for everyone going down the route,” said Cpl. Luis D. Rivera-Rivera from Ponce, Puerto Rico. “We clear the route for them; so they can go from point A to point B. We can actually save lives by preventing an IED hit.”
Rivera-Rivera and his fellow soldiers take their job very serious and they have never received a report of a unit being hit after they cleared an area. The unit has an impressive find to detonation record of 78 percent, the highest for a route clearance company, recovering or disabling more than 90 IEDs in eight months with only 14 detonations.
The company arrived in January 2010 without equipment. In a month, they acquired a fleet of bare vehicles which they raised up to combat power; installing communications, attaching equipment to disable and detect IEDs, and training on the same vehicles. A month later, the unit was moved to COP Ramrod, located near Helmand province, were they cleared some of the most IED ridden routes.
“I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing but we had a lot of chances to apply our training,” said Rivera-Rivera about the move to COP Ramrod. “We were finding four to five IEDs a week. Repetition has made us better.”
Even though they don’t find as many IEDs after moving to the Kandahar City area, the hazards remain the same. After ten months of experience, the company still has the same momentum it started with in January.
“Everyone I’ve talked to thanks us for what we do,” said Greenwell. “They say we are the crazy guys out there looking for the IEDs. Everyone else tries to avoid them.”
Their final mission on Nov. 25, was to clear a route leading to another small base. A tight route with little room for vehicle maneuverability, surrounded by mud walls providing cover and orchards providing concealment the area was an ambush alley favored by insurgents and could only be cleared by foot.
“It depends on the terrain. If we can get to the culverts without dismounting so we aren’t as exposed,” said Moore who is 20 years old and on his first deployment to Afghanistan. “Some spots you can’t get to with the vehicles and check. So you have to dismount and look for command wires.”
With their vehicles following behind, two dismount teams began the search for IEDs. Each team armed with a metal detector and a wire detector walked across recently picked fields and orchards, the farming season was over.
“I’m not nervous anymore,” said Wolber about dismounted patrols and also on his first deployment. “At first you are but after you apply what you learned in training and practice it more and more you get more comfortable with the tools given to you and confident in your skills to get the job done.”
Avoiding well travelled paths which might be booby trap and depending on a metal detector to avoid mines; they climbed walls and jumped across deep, water filled, irrigation ditches. According to United Nations reports, Afghanistan has more than 530 square kilometers identified as containing mines and unexploded ordnance in addition to IEDs placed by insurgents.
Both teams check under culverts and look for suspicious activity. Specifically searching for command wires buried in farmlands. Insurgents use cables to set off road side bombs from a distance, behind trees, a mud wall or inside a building. Using a special detector, they find and disable these pre-staged trigger wires. Discovered IEDs are blown in place, except under special circumstances where an explosive ordnance disposal unit is required.
“I got one,” said a member of the patrol pointing to a small exposed part of wire. It was the second wire found by the team during their Thanksgiving day patrol. The first was found minutes earlier in the same barren field approximately a hundred yards back. After checking water filled ditches and trees for wires, the patrol reached the small base just as their vehicles caught up. It was time to go back to their home in Afghanistan, Kandahar Air Field.