Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Afghanistan Recollections: First Mission

Breakfast just before the mission.
*At one time I had toyed around with writing a memoir of my time in Afghanistan and what follows was meant to be the prologue. I later abandoned the idea when I realized that I simply did not have an extensive enough account recorded in my journal to aid in this task. 

 Somewhat apprehensively I eased out of the back of the truck as gently as possible until I felt my boot firmly touch the road. Well, it wasn't really a road per se, more like a dirt path. This far outside of Kandahar City there wasn't anything one could accurately call a road, at least not in any conventional sense. In fact, the whole of Afghanistan has just four main paved highways that crisscross the country. With few exceptions most other routes were like this one, namely, somewhat compact dirt pathways that unfortunately posed little problem for insurgents in terms of IED placement (except during the winter months when the ground becomes significantly hardened).

And it was precisely this threat of IEDs that explained why I now found myself in the middle of this dangerous road. I was part of a Combat Engineering Unit tasked with “route clearance” which sounds more benign than it really is. Our job was to clear routes of IEDs so as to enable infantry or SF or whomever access to their objective areas. This is why historically the Combat Engineer motto has been “clearing the way.” At any rate, for this, my very first mission, it was business as usual as my platoon had been assigned to escort an infantry unit while clearing the route of IEDs.

But part way through the mission the Infantry unit we were embedded with asked us to halt the convoy. Standard procedure was to set up a security perimeter around the convoy upon the order of a stop. Through my headset I could hear our TC (truck commander) grumble in response to this “request” by the Infantry commander. The TC hesitated a bit before finally ordering me outside. For this mission I was the dismount and so as expected was ordered to hop out and take part in the security perimeter then being formed. So as I had been trained to do I walked out about 5 meters from the road and took a kneeling position and began to scan the area ahead of me which included several mud structures, omnipresent in the rural areas of Afghanistan.

I should have been concentrating on my sector but instead all I could think about was how I was finally in the country that I had been reading about voraciously for the past year. This was the place where supposedly Empires came to die or at the least to be severely humiliated. Alexander, the Arabs, Genghis Khan, the British, the Soviets, and now the United States. And now the “graveyard of empires”, a place most Westerners, especially Americans, would not be able to identify on an Atlas. As the old saying goes “war is how geography is taught to Americans” or something near to that. I would later come to doubt this popular view of the supposed unconquerable nature of Afghanistan (for example see the following post) but at the time I accepted this standard interpretation and it was certainly on my mind as I knelt there in the dirt.

“Hey!”, bellowed a voice behind me, disrupting my reverie. I turned to see one of the Infantry Sergeants hurrying toward my position. “Get back on the road, Specialist,” he stated while beckoning me towards him. I readily obeyed situating myself inside the tire tracks, theoretically the safest place to be on the road.Then somewhat exasperatedly he exclaimed, “You realize there are anti-personnel mines all over the place here?”

Shit. He was right of course. In fact, I had read that Afghanistan was estimated to still have 7-9 million mines scattered about the country, most of them left over from the 1979-89 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Only Cambodia and the Congo were calculated to have more mines. Here was my first instance in which it was made clear that rigidly following handbook SOPs (standard operating procedure) could possibly get one killed. For as I stated earlier the SOP in this case dictated a 5 meter depth when setting up a security perimeter around a convoy, but the surfeit of mines in Afghanistan rendered this normal procedure foolhardy. (I would repeatedly discover throughout my deployment that our Army handbooks were rarely an astute guide when it came to executing tactics on the ground.)

So I continued for a few moments pulling security from the tire tracks while dwelling on the stupidity of what I had just done. But my self-chastisement didn't last long as we were then given the order to mount back up. Back inside the truck my TC started to complain again about the command decision to have the convoy stop and dismount. (Later, it was explained to me that our unit's own policy was, except when absolutely necessary, never to dismount in the south because mines and IEDs were so ubiquitous there compared to the east where my unit had originally been stationed. This was why the TC had hesitated before ordering me to dismount.)

Clearing the way.
Nevertheless, we resumed our extremely slow pace down the route, patiently attempting to find IEDs and then neutralize them, preferably by NOT blowing up any of our vehicles in the process. This entire procedure could be very monotonous as it involved moving down the route at very slow speeds and then periodically stopping for long lengths of time to investigate suspected IEDs quite often discovering the item to be just an abnormally shaped rock or something. For a dismount such as myself at the time the monotony could be quite unbearable. The paradox for combat engineers is that route clearance is one of the most dangerous jobs a soldier can do and one of the most boring.

But my boredom on this mission subsided somewhat as I developed the sudden urge to relieve myself. Of course there was no stopping the convoy for such which meant I had to take care of the problem right there in the truck while we were on the move. Now it suddenly dawned on me why I had seen several empty Gatorade bottles scattered in the living quarters that I shared with the driver, PFC Graley, and gunner, SPC Kelly. The necks of Gatorade bottles are much wider than standard water bottles hence much easier to piss in. The trouble was that this realization arrived much too late since all I had were empty water bottles.

As I struggled to work around my armor and piss in the water bottle I could hear over the headset one our Huskies (a slender bodied IED detection vehicle with GPR panels) indicating that it had registered something on its GPR screen. Mercifully for me, the LT called a halt to the convoy and ordered the Husky to double check its finding. This provided me with just enough time to finish up with, I should note, little success. So I quickly strapped myself back in and along with the rest of the convoy awaited the Husky's analysis.

A few moments later there was something that sounded like a muffled crack of thunder. Immediately our headsets lit up as it became clear that as the Husky had been going over its area for a third and final time it struck an IED. The driver of the Husky, SPC Collins, quickly came over the radio to indicate that he was fine but that the Husky wasn't. As our vehicle was the closest with a mine roller ( a large protruding extension of rollers attached to the front of some of the trucks) the LT ordered us to sweep and clear the area so that a wrecker could approach and recover the downed vehicle. So Graley took the truck and mine rolled a significant area around the downed Husky to ensure that the wrecker would have enough of a “safe” area to work with.

We finished rolling the area and since we didn't set anything off our TC radioed to the LT to let him know that we were finished clearing the area. The wrecker was then ordered to proceed toward the Husky but as it did so another explosion rocked the area. It was so close that we thought our truck had been hit but turned out to be the wrecker that was hit. The blast was such that it basically destroyed the wrecker but thankfully the two soldiers that were in the vehicle somehow ended up without any serious injuries. After it had been determined that the soldiers were fine, Kelly, our gunner, looked at me and stated succinctly “Welcome to Afghanistan, Petersen.”

So then for my very first mission I learned at least three very important things:
  1. Never walk off the road in a mine infested area. (And its corollary that the SOP cannot be inflexibly followed.)
  2. IEDs almost always come in pairs (or more).
  3. And, lastly, always bring plenty of empty Gatorade bottles.