- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 5, 2009

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan | Staff Sgt. Daniel Paul Rabidou nervously rubbed the sweat from his palms onto his Army fatigues.

The tall, well-built 24-year-old from San Bernardino, Calif., had already survived two improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on convoys in the past six weeks, including one on the same road he was getting ready to traverse again from Forward Operating Base Ramrod near Kandahar to a small outpost in the heart of Taliban territory.

Since they arrived at the outpost on Sept. 13, the Blackwatch unit - Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, with the 5th Stryker Brigade - had lost three soldiers and two civil affairs officers. IEDs had destroyed three of their four Stryker vehicles. Overall, 21 of 350 Strykers have been destroyed since the 5th Brigade deployed in southern Afghanistan in July; more than two dozen Americans have been killed and nearly 70 wounded.

Soldiers call the Strykers “Kevlar coffins,” Sgt. Rabidou said.

“Lead vehicle always sucks,” he said, as the convoy set off with a reporter and photographer from The Washington Times in the first Stryker. “It’s usually the one to go first if there’s a pressure plate bomb. Sure you don’t want to get out now? It may be your last chance,” he asked half-jokingly.

The eight-wheeled Stryker, introduced a decade ago as a faster, more mobile alternative to tanks and other tracked vehicles, has had a controversial history. In theory, the Stryker’s speed and capacity — it can carry 11 plus a crew of two — makes up for its lighter armor. But critics say its vulnerability to IEDs make it unsuitable for duty in southern Afghanistan.

The Stryker is “essentially a paramilitary police vehicle,” said retired Army Col. Doug Macgregor, a specialist on tank warfare. “It’s designed to transfer American light infantry down a road,” not to fight an elusive enemy in treacherous terrain.

Col. Macgregor said the U.S. Army would do better to follow the example of Canada, which has bought German Leopard II tanks for use by ground forces in Afghanistan.

“What you need in Afghanistan is tracked armor, off-the-road capability and a stable platform for large-caliber guns,” he said.

Many soldiers and officers interviewed by The Times over the past two weeks also questioned the use of Strykers in southern Afghanistan.

Taliban insurgents have become increasingly successful in planting IEDs, some as large as 1,500 to 2,000 pounds. Since July, these powerful bombs have ripped apart 21 of the 350 Strykers in Afghanistan and destroyed one Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle. In addition to more than two dozen Americans killed in action, scores have been wounded, many with severe injuries ranging from head trauma to loss of limbs.

The latest incident occurred Monday as a convoy headed out from Forward Operating Base Ramrod.

“We were heading into town to win over the hearts and minds,” said Sgt. Josh Gooding, 33, from Panama City, Fla., interviewed in a hospital bed at Kandahar airfield’s trauma unit.

A hand and his right eye had been damaged.

“We went out there to say, ‘Look, we’re not intimidated, and we’re not going anywhere,’ ” he said.

“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.”

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.

He said he understands the concerns of his soldiers, but “it’s up to the American people to answer whether the lives already lost are worth the cost so we can accomplish the objective of the mission.”

Sgt. Rabidou said he still gets “jittery” whenever he hears an explosion. “We train, train, train to do the right thing to stay alive. There’s not a lot we can do for an IED. It’s like a game of chance - sometimes you’re lucky, sometimes you’re not.

“It’s the most dangerous ride of my life; for that matter, anyone’s life. Guess that’s why people started calling it the Kevlar coffin.”

Earlier in the week, at Kandahar Air Field, a young soldier said he was terrified of being deployed to his Stryker unit.

“Honestly, I’m going, but I don’t want to go,” said the soldier, who asked not to be named to avoid problems with his superiors. “I want to at least have a fighting chance. There’s no enemy when you’re sitting in a box. You can’t fight what you can’t see when you’re sitting in the Kevlar coffin.”

Shaun Waterman in Washington contributed to this article.