“I’m lucky,” said Sgt. Gooding, who had just woken up his wife, Amber, by phone to tell her he was OK. “It was a huge reality check for me. It blew the tires right off and it breached the hull.”
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said U.S. officials are “well aware of the fact that the Stryker brigade out of Fort Lewis [Wa.] has taken heavy casualties” in southern Afghanistan.
“While the type of vehicle our forces are riding in, be it a Stryker or an MRAP, can help them survive an IED attack, the best defense is a good offense and [Defense] Secretary [Robert M.] Gates and his team here and in Afghanistan are working hard to make sure our troops have the wherewithal to track, map and ultimately defeat the bomb-implanting networks,” Mr. Morrell said.
Despite the Army’s use of mine-clearing vehicles before many of the convoys head out on patrol, insurgents sometimes replace the IEDs within an hour.
“We are constantly reviewing our tactics,” said Capt. Adam Weece, spokesman for the Stryker brigade.
“We take into account the mission, the desired outcome, the enemy’s tactics and the area in which we operate, and we do that to determine the way we carry out our missions,” he said.
“We’ve seen the developments of new IEDs,” he added, “some with on and off switches trying to defeat our detection devices. They don’t have to kill every one of us; they don’t have to destroy every vehicle; they only have to destabilize us, and that is what they are attempting to do.”
The results have been especially rough for the men and women of combat outpost Rath in the heart of Maywand district. With a population of 55,000, a growing insurgency and a literacy rate of under 3 percent, the district has become an enormous challenge to secure.
First, the soldiers have to get there.
“The reality is, if an IED is out there, and we haven’t spotted it, someone’s going to get hit,” said Staff Sgt. Joshua Yost, 27, from Shelton, Wash. A survivor of a Sept. 14 IED attack that killed two Americans, he said, “When I first came to Afghanistan in 2002, 2003 and even 2004, we never worried about IEDs. Now it’s the most dangerous weapon the Taliban uses against us.”
On the road from Ramrod to Rath, nine soldiers and two civilians were crammed into a Stryker, facing one another in the small space.
Outside was desert, rock and white powdery sand. Inside the vehicle, a live video feed gave a black-and-white view of the desolate surroundings.
The vehicle bumped and bounced through the empty vastness, trying to stay clear for as long as possible from Highway 1, the main thoroughfare that connects Kabul to Afghan cities in the south and west. U.S. troops call it the “Death Highway” for the large number of IEDs placed by insurgents in its culverts.
Just as Highway 1 came into view, the Stryker rolled over a small boulder, jostling its occupants as it lifted into the air, before falling back to earth with a thud.
“Damn, it doesn’t matter how many times we hit a big rock, it still makes me jump,” Sgt. Rabidou said. Then he added: “Feeling lucky today.”