Staff Sgt. Margaret C. Nelson
1st Brigade Combat Team PAO NCOIC
KIRKUK, Iraq – Attacks, including use of improvised explosive devices against the military (coalition and Iraq Security Forces combined) and civilian targets, have been reduced by 60 percent since June, according to military statistics. In a recent Pentagon press briefing, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, then-commander of Multinational Corps-Iraq, credited several reasons for the decline, including “manned assets” on the ground.
Combat engineers of 2nd Platoon, A Company, 1st Brigade Special Troops Battalion, comprise one of those manned assets. Their mission in the Kirkuk Province of northeastern Iraq is to intentionally seek and destroy, as Odierno put it, “the extremists’ weapon of choice.”
Alpha Company, nicknamed the “Annihilators,” consists of two route clearance platoons, one earth moving section and one headquarters section. The company is made up of combat engineers and support staff. Since 10th Mountain Division (LI) arrived in September, A Company is credited with some 60 IED discoveries, to include 13 hoaxes.
What distinguishes the Annihilators from other companies is “they have the most finds,” said A Company’s 1st Sgt. Daniel Kelch. He attributes that to their “flexibility and attention to detail.”
During a recent route clearance operation, 2nd Platoon – made up of around 20 personnel to include a female medic, and a two-man Air Force explosive ordnance disposal team – found and destroyed two confirmed IEDs and one suspected hoax device. The three-man crew manning the Buffalo, an armored mine disposal truck, in the seven-vehicle route clearance patrol was as diverse as the devices they seek.
The Buffalo’s crew of combat engineers on this mission is led by truck commander Staff Sgt. Christopher McClain, 36.
“This is my second tour here. I also spent a year in Afghanistan,” said the 10-year veteran. McClain mans controls of the Buffalo’s 30-foot retractable arm from the front passenger seat adjacent to the driver.
Sgt. Joseph Alustiza, 28, who is seated behind the driver as a lookout, survived an IED attack in November. An artillery shell struck the RG 31 that Alustiza was truck commander in, entering his window, “missing my face by around six inches,” he said. The aspiring photojournalist emerged unscathed from the incident; his driver suffered a concussion.
On his first tour overseas, the crew’s driver, Spec. Joshua Pimentel, 21, wants to be a police officer when his contract ends.
About 45 minutes into the patrol, the Buffalo crew is called into action to “interrogate” a suspicious area, just off the right side of the road they are patrolling. The crew discovers a wire coiled near the asphalt (the wire painted black to blend in) and appears to trace back to the area in question. The decision is made to send the EOD crew with their robot to investigate further.
“The first one we encountered was a pressure-wire-activated improvised explosive device,” Alustiza said.
He explained that a spotter alerts another when a target is en route; the wire man grabs the pressure wire attached to explosives and places it across the road. When the target drives over the wire, the IED detonates. In this case, the victim is EOD’s robot.
“Better the robot than a civilian or one of us,” McClain said. “The blast we saw may have blown the right front tire and possibly disabled our arm.” He further explained that the crew would have been fine, but recovery of the Buffalo, due to its size, would have been lengthy.
Once the robot is retrieved, and the site inspected by EOD, the patrol continues on, at a slower than normal pace for a military patrol. All occupants of the specially designed route clearance vehicles – RG 31s, a medium mine protected vehicle; Husky, a single occupant, four-wheel drive vehicle; and Buffalo – are responsible as lookouts for “anything” that looks out of place. That is not an easy feat with the debris that litters most routes in this country.
“I don’t get where all the tape comes from,” said Alustiza, referring to tape from audio cassettes that are seen in abundance on this route. The tape, at times, can appear like wire to the untrained eye.
“A patrol can last anywhere from 6 to 13 to 48 hours (or more) – depends on the mission,” McClain said.
McClain continuously mentors Pimentel on his driving, as the Buffalo weighs about 24 tons and sits 10 to 12 feet off the ground. It seats six passengers. The size can only be described as monstrous; visibility and maneuverability for the driver is limited.
“Sergeant, don’t worry; I’m a good driver,” Pimentel assures McClain.
The patrol halts at a Concerned Local Citizen checkpoint, where one of the CLCs has motioned the lead vehicle to stop. A possible IED has been spotted off the Main Supply Route the patrol is clearing. After receiving approval to investigate, the patrol moves to the area described by the CLC, “interrogating” two other suspicious spots along the route.
Pimentel maneuvers the Buffalo into position so McClain can work the arm, commonly referred to as “the claw,” by remote control with a camera attached to assist the navigator. McClain probes the patch of dirt and gravel in the suspicious area. He controls the arm flawlessly as he inspects the area with the claw-like rake, which resembles the head of a small steam shovel with a prod attached.
“It’s just a sand bag,” McClain said.
After communicating a negative find, the patrol moves on to the area described by the CLCs, keeping vigilant and “always relying on instinct and distrust of the unknown,” according to Alustiza.
After spotting the area, a crater formed from a previous IED detonation, EOD moves in and sets up another robot to investigate. Security is tight with helicopters in the air lending overwatch support.
“It’s a definite,” McClain said, as information flowed between vehicles, EOD and air assets. EOD neutralized the site, blowing up what later is suspected to be an IED made up of military ordnance.
The third site is an elaborate hoax, according to the crew, made to look like an actual IED with exposed white wire.
“One of the intents of a hoax is to gather information on how we investigate a site,” McClain said.
When 2nd Platoon is not on patrol, it’s business as usual for the crew.
“We switch up crews within the platoon on a regular basis,” McClain said.
“It keeps us fresh with different perspectives,” Alustiza added.
What was supposed to be a “routine route clearing operation,” lasting up to six hours, according to McClain, quickly became other than routine. The mission concluded about 12 hours later, returning in darkness, clearing the return route by spotlights that adorn the outside of all vehicles in the patrol.
“We’ll be up in a few hours on another route,” Alustiza said.
Soldiers spend their down time by maintaining their vehicles and equipment or attending required professional courses. “There are no days off,” McClain said.
In five months, Alpha Company has submitted 32 Combat Action Badge requests. Fifteen Soldiers have previously been awarded CABs from their last deployment where they conducted route clearance and EOD escort patrols in southern Iraq.
Since this patrol in mid-January, Alpha Company’s 2nd Platoon has not come across another IED. “But that could change tomorrow,” Alustiza said.