WARDAK PROVINCE, Afghanistan
Members of the Wisconsin National Guard’s 951st Engineer Company clutched cups of coffee and squinted into the early morning sun as Lt. Mark Bulinski, 28, and Sgt. First Class Chet Millard, 32, briefed on the day’s mission: Find and disarm roadside bombs on one of Afghanistan’s most lethal highways.
Known as Route Georgia, the 17-mile stretch of road flanked by lush apple orchards and open fields on one side and rugged cliffs on the other offers an ideal setup for insurgents, who lie in wait for coalition convoys before pulling the trigger on improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
In the past month, Route Georgia has become the ground zero of eastern Afghanistan for IEDs, the deadliest weapon used by insurgents to battle U.S. and NATO troops.
Maj. Gen. Mike Scaparrotti, who took charge of more than 24,000 NATO forces in eastern Afghanistan this spring, says that about 70 percent of the U.S. casualties in his region last month came from IEDs and that Wardak Province, just west of Kabul, had the most blasts at 42.
About two hours into the day’s journey, the lead vehicle detects something suspicious, and Spc. Mike Booth, 22, who in civilian life works construction in Green Bay, maneuvers his large vehicle called a Buffalo for a closer look.
Staff Sgt. Daniel Burger, 35, from Wassau, Wis., then operates a giant robotic claw on the front of the vehicle to look for trip wires and explosives.
“They want me to find it quickly, but it just doesn’t work that way,” he said.
For two hours, the convoy stops traffic while the team searches, first by machine, and later on foot, backing up traffic of colorful buses and trucks overflowing with bags of wheat. Before moving on, they find four mortar rounds rigged as IEDs and detonate them safely.
Three hours later, they come to another hole in the road and launch another search. An Afghan National Army unit had found part of a suspected IED, but they needed the coalition’s help in extracting the rest. Staff Sgt. Burger finds what he thinks is a mortar round, but closer examination reveals an empty water bottle.
“If we’re told a wire is in place, and we didn’t thoroughly look for it and something happened - I’d take it pretty hard,” he said.
The convoy continues, and two hours later, the inevitable happens: An explosion rips into the convoy’s rear vehicle, twisting the axle and rolling it into a ditch. Luckily, everyone walks out safely from their Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, or MRAP.
“It’s like being at the top of a roller coaster, and you lurch forward, then start falling with no brakes,” said Spc. Ryan Haring, 20, of Tomahawk, Wis., who was driving the stricken vehicle.
“It was the biggest I’d been in,” added Sgt. John Johnson, 41, of Lac du Flambeau Reservation.
After hundreds of soldiers died in roadside bombings while riding Humvees in Iraq, the U.S. Army ordered the MRAPs. In Afghanistan, the MRAPs are not good in snow or rugged terrain, but they are saving lives until the coalition can develop and deploy all-terrain versions of the blast-resistant vehicles.
“We trust the vehicles,” said Spc. Haring, “As long as we wear our helmets and seat belts, you don’t move too much. The worst thing we have is rollovers.”
The enemy is adapting here in the Tangi Valley — creating larger and larger roadside bombs. “They’ve gotten bigger,” said Col. David B. Haight, commander of the Army’s 3rd brigade, 10th Mountain Division, “They are several hundred pounds, some of them.”
Maj. David Stevenson, executive officer of 287th Infantry, 3rd brigade, 10th Mountain Division, says he can see the psychological toll on soldiers from almost daily IED attacks. “They never know when they’re going to get hurt.”
“I always expect to get hit,” said Sgt. First Class Millard, “When we don’t — it’s a good day.” Although the Wisconsin Guard unit completed the mission without casualties, it was not to be a good day for the coalition along Route Georgia.
Just a few hours after the Guard passed, another convoy got hit.
This time, the MRAP flipped over into a small river, killing 23-year-old Gunnery Sgt. Jerry Evans Jr. of Orlando, Fla., and shattering the legs of two other soldiers. It happened at the same location where the Guard unit had earlier discovered and detonated its first IED of the day.
“The most common misconception is that once we clear a road — it stays clear,” said Sgt. First Class Millard. “Once we lose visual site of a route, it’s no longer clear.”