- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 16, 2008

FORWARD OPERATING BASE NORMANDY, Iraq — The unsung heroes of the war in Iraq — or any war — are the combat engineers, the men who go ahead of the infantry to clear a path through the enemy defenses.

In Iraq, they perform another task as well: Finding and destroying improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the military term for roadside bombs that al Qaeda has used with horrific effect on U.S. troops and hapless noncombatants.

“They take this personally, it’s not just a job,” said Sgt. Richard West, a 12-year Army veteran from Grapevine, Texas. “I just can’t describe the anger and hurt they feel when someone is hurt or killed by an IED they missed.”

Sgt. West is a member of the 38th Combat Engineer Battalion, 4th Stryker Combat Brigade Team of the 2nd Infantry Division. He’s been hit at least three times in Iraq by IEDs. The last incident, when he was outside his armored vehicle, left him with a dozen shrapnel wounds.

A specialist who asked not to be named is also with the 38th. He’d been hit four times in Iraq when he spoke to me. He was happy to speak of anything and everything but fell silent when asked his full name, his hometown and his home state.

“My family doesn’t know much of this. And I want to keep it that way,” he said.

I had been out with the route clearance teams before but had never encountered an IED. That all changed at 6:33 a.m. Jan. 8, the kickoff day for Operation Raider Harvest in Diyala province’s northern Diyala River Valley, to root out al Qaeda terrorists.

The mission of the 3rd Squadron, 2nd Platoon of the 38th was to lead a company of infantrymen in armored Stryker troop carriers into the area while clearing their path of IEDs.

IEDs come in all shapes and sizes; they can be concealed under freshly laid gravel or in roadside trash heaps or disguised as discarded plastic jugs. They can be detonated by a crushwire or tripwire or by an operator using a cell phone or other electronic device. They can be made with plastic explosive, TNT or unused ordnance, such as mortar or artillery shells.

And they kill — suddenly, devastatingly, horribly.

“You sure you want to do this?” an Army public affairs sergeant had asked the night before. “You’ll be in the most dangerous position, but in the safest vehicle, a Buffalo.”

“Good to go,” I said, my ego fed by the prospect of being at the so-called tip of the spear. “I want it.”

The Buffalo is in no way an attractive vehicle. It weighs about 40 tons and looks like a gigantic box on wheels. But it has a V-shaped bottom to deflect explosive blasts as well as upper armor. It’s also fitted with a hydraulic arm with a giant fork on the end for “interrogating” suspicious objects and holes.

It does its job well, as cumbersome as it is. It also has ample leg room, a special perk in a military vehicle not to be casually dismissed.

On my Buffalo, there was a crew of four. Three were veteran combat engineers who had survived previous IED blasts. The fourth was a 19-year-old private straight out of training school.

The first village we entered was Silsil. It looked innocuous enough as we crossed a canal and slowly rolled up its main street. There were small vegetable and fruit stands in front of homes and shops; orchards of oranges and pomegranates were close by. The streets were deserted at the break of day.

One hundred yards, 125 yards, we traveled from the canal, slowly making our way to a T-junction. Everyone scoured visually for IED crushwires while electronic equipment sent out waves to jam any electronic detonator signals.

At 150 yards, as we slowed for the junction, the specialist, who was driving, called out: “Do I go right or lef …”

He never finished the sentence. The last letter in “left” was replaced by a massive, metallic bang. Almost simultaneously, the Buffalo was lifted into the air and then crashed down.

There was no sound from the four soldiers in the Buffalo, not immediately anyway, except for heavy breathing. Everyone just listened anxiously. Was there going to be a second explosion — from the fuel tanks or from a daisy-chained IED?

The dust, dirt and gravel wrapped us in an impenetrable gray-brown blanket as debris rained down on us.

Later came the near-hysterical jokes and bantering when it appeared there would be no explosion No. 2. We’d survived. Our vehicle was a mess — it’s frame was bent, armor plating blown off — but we’d survived.

The IED was estimated to have contained 50 to 60 pounds of TNT. It was buried under the packed gravel road and exploded directly beneath us, set off by a crushwire that had been covered over to blend in with the road surface. It left a crater 2½ feet deep and 5 feet across.

Others later that day weren’t so fortunate. Two men in a Stryker were severely wounded after striking an IED, a fact that didn’t sit well with the engineers, who took the injuries personally.

Later that day, we were taken to a medical facility where we were poked, probed and questioned.

“Don’t tell them you’re hurting if you want to go out again tomorrow,” someone whispered in my ear.

I kept my mouth shut. When I failed the eye exam, I told the medical technician that it was because I didn’t have my glasses with me. The wobbly performance on heel-toe exercises was the result of bad knees, I added; my inability to perform the memory tests of word lists and reciting the first four letters of the alphabet backwards were the result of “senior moments.”

We went out again the next day, and it was uneventful — for us. Six soldiers and their Iraqi interpreters were killed nearby when they entered a booby-trapped house .

As we returned to Forward Operating Base Normandy, the conversation in the Buffalo turned to who had a stash of Advil or Tylenol. The headaches had set in with a vengeance, but none of the crew wanted to risk being medically restricted from duty by going to the medical building for pills.

I’m on medical restriction now. I couldn’t hide the concussion as well as the others. There’s only so much you can claim to be the result of age or wobbly knees. And a wonky eye and fluid in an ear helped push me to go back to the doctor and confess.

But tomorrow is a new day and there are new missions. Where to go and what to do? Well, the 38th did give me an open invitation.

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