Missouri Guardsman describes engineers' use of route clearance mission to improve Afghan relations
By: Jon E. Dougherty/Missouri National Guard Public Affairs
Afghan civilians crowd around American soldiers on a mission to clear away explosives.
FORWARD OPERATING BASE FENTI, Afghanistan (Jan. 14, 2010) — As time for the pre-mission brief drew near, crews began to gather around 1st Lt. Chris Johnson, their platoon leader.
Dawn had begun to break and a winter chill hung in the air. As Johnson prepared to speak, a senior NCO waved the crews closer to form a semi-circle facing the junior officer.
“Intelligence says there was a cache found [nearby] containing quite a bit of bomb-making materials, but other than that, there is nothing new,” said Johnson, of Basehor, Kan. “We’ll be the first mission down this route in a few weeks.”
Johnson went on to provide further details of the mission that would be carried out by crews belonging to the 41st Engineer Company, an Army component based at Fort Riley, Kan., and the 5-3 Field Artillery Company, which is based at Fort Lewis, Wash. He discussed the routes, destinations and goals. The mission’s objectives were similar to what these route clearance troops have been accomplishing regularly during their six months in-country.
But there were some additional, non-combat related components that have the potential to contribute as much toward the objective of defeating extremism here as any offensive military action, Johnson said. While the primary focus of the 41st’s mission was to clear key routes of improvised explosive devices, they would also be providing humanitarian aid to a local community.
“At tent city, we’ll hop out and drop off the boxes of clothing to the residents there,” Johnson told his crews, referring to a tented community called Chamtala.
At the end of the route, the crews would rest overnight at an Afghan National Police compound, Johnson said.
• • • • •
Less than a half-hour later, crews were in their Mine-Resistant, Armor-Protected vehicles — MRAPs — awaiting the command to move out. When it came, the column made its way towards the base entrance. Afghan soldiers fanned out across busy asphalt streets to halt traffic so the convoy could proceed intact and unimpeded. Once clear of the base, the column weaved methodically through Jalalabad’s crowded thoroughfares, passing through market districts clogged with cars, three-wheeled carts, and shoppers.
It was nearly 20 minutes before the convoy finally broke free of the downtown congestion. Once clear of Jalalabad, the convoy increased its speed, taking advantage of the rare stretch of paved road.
Shortly before 9 a.m., the column eased into Chamtala and ground to a halt. Soldiers emerged from each vehicle to unload boxes of clothing. Within seconds, the troops were inundated with residents — most of whom were children — as they streamed out of nearby tents and plywood-built shops.
In a sort of controlled chaos, children of all sizes clamored for the clothing. Within moments, soldiers had distributed the contents of all three large boxes. By any measure the mission was a resounding success, evidenced by the satisfied smiles and abundant laughter from the scores of kids who continued to mob the soldiers and compete for their attention.
But the children weren’t the only ones enjoying themselves. Each member of the 41st and 5-3 involved took great pleasure in those few moments playing Santa Claus. For many, it was the highlight of their day, if not the mission.
• • • • •
For the remainder of the day, the convoy plodded along its route, stopping occasionally to investigate potential IED finds but, fortunately, coming up empty-handed.
Once the column halted to investigate the sighting of what appeared to be a young male armed with a rifle. Upon spotting the individual, Johnson ordered six soldiers to dismount up the side of a hill dotted with agricultural plots to investigate. In the end, the soldiers rounded up a small group of teenage boys who were armed only with a dilapidated BB gun — hardly a threat to the convoy or the surrounding community.
On this day, the route clearance mission was still the primary focus for the crews, but the most impactful part thus far had clearly been the distribution of clothes at Chamtala. The commander of the 41st, Capt. Reggie Rice, of Lee, Maine, said combining humanitarian missions with more conventional wartime missions like route clearance is important.
“If I can hand out candy and school supplies, great — that stuff lasts only a short time,” he said. “If I’m handing out a message that convinces the locals that my soldiers are here to protect them from IEDs and allow them to travel the roads safely, that will have lasting sweetness for the people of Afghanistan and my soldiers.”
• • • • •
Around 4 p.m., after hours of being jostled and choked with dust in cramped MRAPs, the weary crews pulled into an Afghan National Police compound overlooking a small community in the province of Nangahar — not far from Tora Bora, the region believed to have been a temporary sanctuary for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The compound was in rocket and mortar range of insurgents who often launched attacks from a small mountain range to the east less than a half a mile away, said Staff Sgt. Cody Newby, of Coeur ‘d Alene, of Idaho, a vehicle truck commander.
That would be a concern for Johnson and his men, who deployed their MRAPs strategically within the compound to guard against any attack, but it was important to be seen as sharing the responsibility for the potential defense of the base with the Americans’ Afghan partners.
As crews powered down vehicles and dismounted for a much-needed stretching of legs, many broke out MREs — Meals Ready to Eat — along with bottles of Gatorade, water and energy drinks. They shared their food with the Afghan soldiers, who quickly gathered to observe the Americans as they set up to spend the night.
They were not alone.
At the perimeters of the compound, local Afghans also gathered, sitting in groups of perhaps a dozen or so while observing the Americans as they went about their business. As American soldiers walked by, they would stare curiously but remained silent.
Meanwhile, though temperatures had been very moderate throughout the day — warming up into the mid-60s — a chill once again filled the dusk air as the sun began to fade below the horizon. Soldiers, inquisitive about their surroundings, began touring the compound’s administrative buildings and observation posts, the latter manned by ANP crews of two or three and armed with heavy machine guns and mortar pits. They exchanged some conversation and laughs with their Afghan counterparts — made possible by Afghan interpreters traveling with the crews.
By 6 p.m. the sun had set completely and temperatures had fallen well below 30 degrees. Soldiers gathered wood for a small fire which they started in an earthen recession, away from the convoy’s vehicles. Throughout the night the Americans and their counterparts intermingled, shared laughs and chai tea — a favorite drink among Afghans — around the flames.
By midnight, most had peeled off to catch some sleep. The Afghans returned to their compound. The Americans spread out by the fire, bundled up in sleeping bags, or curled up inside their MRAPs.
Perhaps dissuaded by the heavy American presence, there were no rocket or mortar attacks overnight, allowing the camp to rest in relative tranquility — a welcome development for the tired soldiers.
• • • • •
The following morning, crews began stirring just before daybreak. They went through their usual rituals of personal hygiene, stowing sleeping bags and cots, and seeking nourishment. By sunrise, some had migrated back to the fire pit, where a combination of U.S. and Afghan soldiers had gathered.
One Afghan soldier brought a large pot full of chai tea which he then shared with the Americans. Soon after, another brought a stack of warm flatbread, a staple in the diets of many Afghans.
The Americans flocked to the flatbread, each of which resembled a 12-inch pizza crust, devouring it with enthusiasm. The consistency of breadsticks, the treat had a hint of sweetness and the inner-consistency of a pancake. It didn’t take long for the large stack of flatbread to disappear, along with the entire pot of chai tea.
Rejuvenated, the American crews prepared to move out next. They gathered once more around platoon leader Johnson as he briefed the day’s mission. They would be returning to the forward operating base they had left the day before. Not much had changed from the initial brief given the day before; crews were to remain vigilant as they concentrated on clearing the route of IEDs.
Before mounting up, the Americans bid their Afghan hosts farewell, thanking them for their hospitality.
• • • • •
Two days later crews from the 41st and 5-3 departed Fenti once more. Three hours later, traveling on largely paved roads, the convoy turned around then halted in a small village southwest of Fenti. There, crews dismounted as once again, children mobbed them.
The eyes and smiles of the children grew large as the soldiers produced bags of candy and treats. For the next fifteen minutes soldiers gave away bags of candy and treats, each bag received even more boisterously than the previous one.
Other kids were satisfied just to be interacting with the soldiers. One boy in particular pulled Command Sgt. Major Steve Steunkel, of the Missouri National Guard’s 203rd Engineer Battalion — who was accompanying the route clearance patrol for the day — off to the side to show him he was learning to write the English alphabet. The boy, perhaps nine, was immediately surrounded by his peers as he proudly showed off his skills to Steunkel by scratching letters out in the dirt.
Other children offered to exchange Pakistan currency — 10 rupees – for American dollar bills, while still others just seemed to want to be close to the Americans.
At times Afghan adult men would show up to shoo the children away from the Americans. Within minutes after the adults left, the children began to crowd the Americans and their machines again. Soon the men would return and the process would repeat itself.
An hour later the order was given to mount up. As the crews took up positions inside their MRAPs, the children instinctively backed off and kept watch several feet away, safely off the roadway. As the convoy pulled out, they waved and cheered, flashing thumbs-up and smiles.
• • • • •
By the time the convoy reached Jalalabad, it was well past sunset. Snaking through downtown, the MRAPs passed scores of shops that were lit up like nightclubs. Throngs of people continued to choke the streets and sidewalks.
A thick cloud of dust hung over the streets, churned by thousands of people and cars and illuminated by a combination of lights from businesses, streetlamps and vehicles. The combination of people, vehicles, donkey carts and open-air markets made Jalalabad seem surreal, said Plano, Texas native Spc. Brian D. Miller of the 5-3, an MRAP crew member.
As the convoy eased into Fenti, the low growl of the MRAPs nearly drowned out by the bustling sounds of the surrounding city, the end of a long day was near. As vehicle systems were powered down and weapons unloaded, crews policed up their trash and belongings as they waited in line to refuel.
Although the convoy had not found any IEDs, the show of good will to the Afghan people made the mission a clear success in the commanders’ eyes.