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Afghan police, grader operator aid stuck Missouri National Guard vehicles
Afghan police, grader operator aid stuck Missouri National Guard vehicles

American soldiers work with Afghan villagers to get a vehicle out of a ditch.
FORWARD OPERATING BASE SHARANA, Afghanistan (Feb. 17, 2010) — First Lt. Phil Kirk pulled the walkie-talkie from his hip, disappointment obvious on his face and in his voice.

“Did you hear that?” Kirk asked, shaking his head. “Sounds like medevac is red. We’re not going anywhere.”

He was referencing radio traffic from the tactical operations center informing him that his newly formed route clearance patrol’s (RCP) first mission would once again be delayed for several hours because medevac helicopters were unable to fly, presumably due to poor weather conditions.

Highly motivated and well-trained, the unit, nicknamed the “Black Jacks,” was pieced together last month with members of the 203rd Engineer Battalion, Missouri Army National Guard, and 5th Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery (the 5-3), 17th Fires Brigade, an active duty unit based at Fort Lewis, Wash.

The pending mission was to be their first as an RCP, and the first time they would work together “outside the wire.” But it had been canceled several times already, always because of weather. This weather delay, however, seemed strange to the Black Jacks, because the morning sun was glaring that day.

Whatever the reason, Kirk understood the decision to postpone had been made. Now it was time to inform his men: Their first mission would just have to wait a little longer.

“I’m sure they’re just trying to be cautious,” Kirk said during his quick brief. “Let’s meet back here at the motor pool around 12:30. I should know by then if we’re a ‘go.’”

As his men huddled close in to try to ward off the bite of the morning chill the sound of a helicopter could be heard in the distance. As it grew closer to the base landing zone, some of Kirk’s Black Jacks turned to look at its approach, some of them smiling at the irony.

“We’ll get out of here later today,” Kirk said confidently as he walked away.

• • • • •

Four hours later, permission to commence the mission finally given, Kirk and his crews quickly formed up in their vehicles near one of the base’s ECP’s - entry control point — and prepared to move out onto the paved highway which snaked through nearby Sharana and into the distant, snow-covered mountains.

“All elements, let’s go,” came Kirk’s order over the radio. The Black Jacks’ first mission was underway.

Once free of the confines of FOB Sharana, the convoy spread out along the highway in tactical formation, each vehicle gunner mindful of his sector of responsibility as the MRAPs made their way through towns and villages of various sizes.

Crowds of Afghans watched the convoy intently from the sides of the road as it passed through each village. Many of the children waved and flashed a “thumbs-up” sign at the lumbering MRAPs, as some of the gunners returned the gesture.

The minutes turned into hours as crews wound their way, uneventfully, through eastern Afghanistan, followed close behind by a logistics patrol Kirk and his men were assigned to clear a path for. The patrol had, early on, passed from blacktop to dirt road and in several places along the usually dusty route crews had to carefully maneuver their vehicles around, and through, pockets of water and muck left behind by recent rains and melting snow.

For the most part the convoy was able to remain on the main road, but it was when they had to maneuver their MRAPs off the main route and through bypass — because the primary road was either washed out or otherwise damaged — that the journey became more nerve-wracking.

Planting IEDs in bypasses is a favorite tactic of the enemy. But also, this time of year, weather-ravaged roads are not always fit for such large vehicles.

• • • • •

Late in the afternoon the convoy rolled into a village which would serve as the furthest point of the day’s patrol.

Two-thirds of the way through the village the convoy’s lead vehicle, commanded by Staff Sgt. Gary Rhodes of Wyandot, Okla., Forward Support Co., 203rd Engineers, stopped short of a ditch that had been dug across the road by Afghan road crews. A narrow bypass that jutted out to the right of the ditch then turned sharply to the left back towards the road, had been built around the obstacle, and Rhodes — after surveying the area — made a decision to go around. It was the only way through.

“Leader, this is One, we’ve got a ditch across the road so we’re taking a bypass, over,” Rhodes announced over the radio, informing Kirk and the rest of the convoy what also lay ahead for them.

Slowly Rhodes’ hulking RG-31, with a cumbersome mine roller device attached to its front, eased off the main road onto the bypass, which looked as if it has just been dug only a few days earlier. The MRAP’s tires quickly sank several inches into the fresh earth but in four-wheel drive the vehicle continued to move forward.

The RG plodded along, its engine emitting a throaty roar as the driver calculatingly maneuvered the sharp left turn in the middle of the bypass, aiming the RG back towards the main road perhaps twenty feet ahead.

Just when it looked as if the crew would make it, the RG’s massive right rear tire sank three feet into the muck within a few feet of the main road, bringing the vehicle to an immediate stop and leaving its crew stranded at a precarious angle.

Immediately the driver began trying to free the vehicle by attempting to rock it back and forth to free the wheel. But the more he tried, the deeper the rear wheel became lodged. After several attempts it became clear that the RG would need to be towed to freedom.

The only problem was figuring out how to get a second vehicle through the narrow, muddy bypass and around the trapped RG in order to attach a heavy rope or chain to it so it could be pulled out.

The answer was already making its way towards the stricken RG and Kirk’s patrol.

• • • • •

Several Afghans — among them a local road grader operator — filtered out of nearby qalats to see about all the commotion and quickly understood the dilemma facing the American patrol. Without hesitating, and despite a language barrier, the Afghans made it clear to the Black Jacks who had dismounted to survey the situation that they wanted to use a nearby road grader — which was already positioned on the side of the bypass in front of Rhodes’ vehicle — to help pull the American MRAP free.

Using hand gestures and broken English, the Afghans and the Americans worked together to position the road grader at the front of the trapped RG-31. As the Afghan operator carefully backed his machine into place, the Black Jacks set up security around their vehicle and produced a steel cable to use for the tow.

It took several minutes to attach the cable to the grader and the RG. In the meantime the U.S. soldiers, along with ANP (Afghan National Police) officers who had begun to show up in increasing numbers, moved the encroaching crowd of locals back, to keep them safe. It turned out to be the right decision, as the three-quarters-of-an-inch thick steel cable snapped almost immediately after the grader began tugging on the MRAP.

Undaunted, Kirk and his men immediately began plotting their next move. By this time the convoy’s Afghan interpreter had been brought up to the scene, making communication with local nationals and ANP officers much easier.

• • • • •

To compensate for a steel cable which was obviously too light to do the job, crews retrieved a thick, heavy rope from another MRAP, secured it both vehicles and made another attempt to pull Rhodes’ vehicle free.

No luck.

Instead of being freed, the grader only managed to pull the RG further down the road, while its entire right side became ensnared in the deep muck.

At that point Kirk, his men and the Afghans determined that they needed two vehicles pulling simultaneously to pull the RG free. The problem was how to get another vehicle from further back in the convoy through the narrow village street and muddy bypass to assist the grader.

More than an hour passed as the Afghan grader operator used his machine to cut deeply into the bypass and mix fresh, dryer dirt with the surface mud to create a more stable driving platform. In the meantime, Kirk ordered his convoy to condense itself and to move as far to the left of the narrow street as possible, so as to allow the chosen vehicle, a Husky driven by Sgt. William Russell of the 203rd, to pass so it could be put into a position to help pull the RG.

Finally, everything — and everyone — was in place. A second tow line was attached to the front of Rhodes’ vehicle and to the back of the Husky; with the wave of an arm from one of Kirk’s men, both tow vehicles lurched forward, pulling the trapped RG further down the road.

But not out of the ditch.

Still, because of the depth of the mud, the RG remained trapped and continued tilting to its right side at a worsening angle.

It would be back to the drawing board for the Black Jacks.

• • • • •

Another hour or more passed and day transformed into night as Black Jacks and Afghans worked as quickly as possible in the fading light to rig yet a third vehicle to the trapped MRAP.

Kirk’s crews decided to use the convoy’s massive wrecker, with its powerful winch, and attach it to the RG’s rear bumper; the plan was to connect the winch to the RG’s rear bumper and pull the embedded rear wheel out of the muck laterally as the road grader and Husky tugged from the front of the vehicle.

The crews knew they were running short of time and out of ideas. This final effort, they decided, would simply have to work. No one wanted to pull security all night to guard the trapped RG, especially in a region known to harbor insurgents.

Shortly before 7 p.m., convoy crews were ready to test their latest plan. The road grader had been used to carve out a slice of earth for the wrecker to take up position laterally from the RG, at an angle that would hopefully be effective when it came time to pull on Rhodes’ rear bumper.

Russell was ready in the Husky. The grader operator gave a thumbs-up.

First, the signal was given to the wrecker’s winch operator, who slowly, deliberately tightened the steel cable attached to the RG bumper. Inch by inch the RG’s rear end was pulled in the direction of the wrecker, freeing its trapped rear wheel.

At the right moment, another signal was given to the two vehicles in front to begin moving the RG forward. Engines roared as the RG’s wheels spun furiously in the soft mud, but finally Rhodes’ trapped vehicle was free, to the delight of the Black Jacks and Afghans alike.

It took awhile, but the RG was finally free. Without wasting time, Kirk and his Black Jacks, through their interpreter, thanked the local Afghan equipment operators and ANP for their assistance, then quickly mounted up, turned around, and resumed the mission. A few hours later they arrived back at FOB Sharana, no worse for wear but with a wealth of new experience and the satisfaction of a job well done.

• • • • •

Rhodes was sanguine and pragmatic about his mishap.

“You know, when you’re lead truck, you can’t just push things out of the way, you have to move forward as best you can,” he said. “We had one way to go and we had to go in. But we’re alright. We handled it as best we could.”

Staff Sgt. Jason Perez of the 5-3, who is originally from Pueblo, Colo., said the unit “came together really well” to help solve the problem. “Maybe a little too well, since there were so many people offering ideas. As a whole, we all got on the ground and tried to help out, which was good, especially for our first time out.”

Rhodes said he was pleasantly surprised by the show of support given the patrol by local Afghans.

“I think it’s because we’ve got a posture there,” Rhodes said, adding he believes more and more Afghans “see the prosperity and opportunity we offer.”

“They see us out there looking out for them and trying to take care of them, and I think they really appreciate it,” said Rhodes.

Perez added: “It was good that we worked together.”

“Seeing them bring all the [equipment] in to help us, I didn’t really expect that,” Perez said. “But seeing all of those people come in and try to help was really nice.”

Staff Sgt. Nathanial Muller of the 5-3, from Vancouver, Wash., also said the outpouring of assistance was unexpected but very welcome.

“I’ve been deployed twice before, both time to Iraq, and this is the first time I’ve actually worked with Afghan civilians, and I was amazed at how they were willing to help us out,” he said. “That gives us a lot of hope for the future as far as Afghan and U.S. military relations are concerned.”

Muller also said noted that without the local assistance, the recovery operation would have taken much longer.

“I think we would have been out there a heck of a lot longer if it weren’t for the local nationals helping us out,” he said.

Platoon leader Kirk spoke highly of his men as well as the villagers who eagerly lent a hand.

What was especially noteworthy, Kirk said, was help offered by the ANP.

“It was great how [they] were able to go into the village and get the construction operators to assist,” said Kirk, who is originally from Waterloo, Ill.

Kirk said his men “took charge, developed plans and made them happen.” They were able to “step up and square it all away.”

The experience, though unexpected, was good for his team, Kirk said.

“We can take a lot of good things from it,” he said. “What is really good is that we are a mixed [Army] National Guard and active duty platoon coming together. There are no problems, we mesh and integrate well, and all my guys are experienced and knowledgeable. They know their job, they know their roles and they do them well.

“I couldn’t ask for anything better,” Kirk said.

• • • • •

The Afghans involved in the recovery also seemed to take good things away from the experience. Throughout the “rescue” of the RG they, along with their ANP protectors, were generous with their assistance as well as skilled and professional.

And the positive interaction with the Americans could have only served to lessen tensions and raise levels of trust, Kirk and his men believe.

In the meantime, for the Black Jacks, their first mission provided the kind of valuable team-building, problem-solving experience they will need to continue being successful for the remainder of their tour here.

That’s because without question, the unpredictable nature of their route clearance mission will test their abilities over and over again.

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