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At the highway, Capt. Casey Thoreen stopped the convey to check the culverts, and several soldiers dismounted with rifles at the ready to search for IEDs beneath the asphalt.

Capt. Thoreen, commander of the unit, also dismounted. He had seen something that resembled the upper plate of a pressure bomb, but it turned out to be a large ceramic container.

“It’s just the top of a jar or something,” he yelled to his men. “Let’s roll out of here.”

Once the Strykers mounted Highway 1, the bumps and rocks gave way to smooth asphalt. Still, the nearly 45-minute ride from Ramrod to Rath seemed to last a lifetime.

People from surrounding villages stopped and stared at the convoy until it passed through the gates of the outpost. Finally, the soldiers in the Stryker smiled with relief.

“This was a good ride,” Sgt. Rabidou said. “We’re here.”

At the outpost, there were a few comforts: chewing tobacco, Cup o’ Noodles, cookies and Starbucks instant coffee packets.

The soldiers would spend the next few days meeting with locals, dealing with detainees, securing the bazaar on foot patrol and searching for insurgents and weapons.

“Hey, Martinez!” yelled one of the arrivals to Pfc. Carlos Martinez-Toro, 20, from Las Vegas, who had just returned from leave. He was the only member of his unit who hadn’t needed to be medically evacuated after the Sept. 14 IED attack.

“I didn’t want to get back on the Stryker. It made me nervous,” he said. “I feel very lucky to be alive. I knew my family was praying for me. Maybe that’s why I got so lucky that day. We lost some really good friends.”

Capt. Thoreen said he understands what his men have had to deal with.

It’s hard for the soldiers “to keep their spirits up when they’ve lost good friends, but we find a way to press on in memory of them,” he said. “They don’t give up, and they’re there for one another. These are some of the best men I’ve ever had the privilege of serving or knowing.”

As for the Stryker, Capt. Thoreen acknowledged, “It’s a dangerous ride.”

“You can’t worry about getting struck by the IED too much, or you become fatalistic,” he said. “You can’t be consumed with it. … There’s just as much danger trying to secure the area we’re in. It’s a mission we believe in. We have to. We’ve lost too many good men already.”

Col. Harry D. Tunnell IV, commander of the 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, said what he needs most is more “ISR capabilities,” meaning intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance to glean information from drones and human sources.

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