FORWARD OPERATING BASE LAGMAN, Afghanistan – The soldiers of Combined Task Force Arrowhead may be the newest kids on the block, in Regional Command South, Afghanistan, but they’ve got an experienced team on their side where finding improvised explosive devices is concerned.
The 883rd Engineer Battalion, out of Winston-Salem, N.C., has been at Forward Operating Base Lagman in Zabul province since the middle of 2011 and they are ready to lend a hand in the search for IEDs.
“They [Combined Task Force Arrowhead] have platoons that need to learn the equipment and the roads out here,” said Staff Sgt. Gregory Lautieri of Coventry, R.I., a platoon sergeant with the 883rd Engineers. “So they have a couple [soldiers] each mission that jump in with us and ride and learn how to operate the vehicles out here because they just got into country. We’re just showing them the ropes so that in two weeks to a month from now they can run their own route clearance missions.”
That mission is fairly cut and dry.
“Our job is to clear the routes of roadside bombs [and] IEDs in order for military convoys and the civilian traffic to be able to travel on the roads and not get hurt,” said Lautieri.
Fortunately for those who travel the main supply routes throughout Afghanistan on a frequent basis, the 883rd not only has the right tools for the mission, but the right people as well. People like Sgt. Steven Harrelson, a truck commander with the 883rd Engineers, who finds his job gratifying.
“It’s a [rewarding] job being able to go out and clear the route for people,” said Harrelson. “It’s rewarding when you’re able to pull them [IEDs] up out of the ground and blow them up before they can do their damage.”
The 883rd’s arsenal of tools include ground-penetrating radar vehicles such as the Husky metal detecting and marking vehicle - a mine protected, vehicle with a mounted mine detection system which is capable of finding and marking metallic explosive hazards such as deep buried IEDs - and the Buffalo mine protected clearance vehicle, a 37-ton combat ready, mine resistant ambush protected 6x6 truck designed specifically for route clearance of IEDs, land mines, and other explosive hazards.
“What it does is, when we find an IED, we use this arm to dig the IEDs up so the [explosive ordnance disposal] guys can blow them up,” said Harrelson.
Easy as that sounds, Harrelson explains that it is not as simple as rolling up to an IED and pulling it up out of the ground.
“You can’t just go in and just dig it up,” said Harrelson. “You have to be able to dig around it and be able to identify it, see what it is, and [then] pull it up.”
“You have a lot of different things that are going on,” explains Harrelson. “You also have to talk with your platoon sergeant and platoon leader [while you are digging the IED up]; let them know what you’re seeing and what’s going on around you. It can be nerve wracking, but once you’ve trained enough, like we’ve been doing over and over, it gets to be like clockwork.”
No matter how many times the 883rd digs up the enemy’s handiwork, there is nothing ever easy about approaching an IED. It’s a dangerous job that leaves a lot to the unknown, which most engineers seem to agree is the most difficult part of their job.
“We’ve been trained to do what we know when we find [an IED], when we see it,” Harrelson said, “but the fact is we don’t know if we’re going to see it, or when we’re going to see it. So basically the time prior to finding the IEDs is the worst part because you don’t know if you’re going to find it or it’s going to find you.”
Of course, even when they do find it first, approaching IEDs, is no joke.
“That’s… about the worse part; going up to it,” Harrelson explains.
At the end of the day, the 883rd has cleared another route somewhere in Afghanistan, but that’s not to say it will stay that way. Route clearance is a difficult, never-ending job.
“It’s not easy,” Lautieri states. “It’s a lot of long days and it’s just non-stop. The good thing is we have four different platoons that go out every day. We get two days to recoup, get our vehicles and equipment back up and then go back out again.”
And so the iron men of the 883rd continue their mission to keep the roads of Afghanistan open to all that travel them.
“Coming back to any FOB or COB, just getting rest is all we need to go out and do it again,” Lautieri stated.