Fort Bragg engineers make mark in IED-clearing mission
The death of a Fort Bragg soldier in Afghanistan last year led to changes that helped combat engineers with the 1st Brigade Combat Team become among the most effective in the country at hunting roadside bombs.
The soldiers led what officials called the last big route-clearing operation of the war in Afghanistan, battling insurgents who had massed in southern Ghazni province, a part of Afghanistan that was undermanned by coalition troops.
Now, those same soldiers hope to be recognized as the top engineer unit in the Army. They have been nominated for the Itschner Plaque, an award presented to the best active, Reserve and National Guard engineer company each year.
The soldiers' success grew out of tragedy.
In early April, Cpl. Antonio Burnside, 31, of Great Falls, Mont., was killed before the 1st Brigade Combat Team took official control of security in southern Ghazni from a small contingent of Polish troops.
Burnside, a soldier with A Company, 1st Brigade Special Troops Battalion, was searching for improvised explosive devises with a route clearance patrol, but it was not a bomb that killed him.
The patrol was stalked by insurgents, battalion commander Lt. Col. Kevin Brown said, and Burnside was killed in a firefight.
His death, Brown said, brought about immediate changes, including more integration with infantry units.
Later route clearance patrols would be conducted with infantry units providing cover, but engineers still came under fire 70 percent of the time they left the base, officials said.
"We honor (Burnside) and respect him," Brown said. "It was a changing moment."
Change was a common theme for A Company, Brown said. The soldiers quickly adapted to a mission that repeatedly changed, even before the soldiers deployed.
Originally, the brigade was in line to assume the Global Response Force role before being pegged for an Afghanistan deployment, Brown said.
Instead of preparing for a role to provide humanitarian assistance or evacuations, the soldiers deployed to a part of Afghanistan that had become an insurgent haven with the absence of U.S. troops.
The deployment was a success for the engineers, Brown said, but was not without sacrifice.
Unlike other U.S. troops in Afghanistan, soldiers of the 1st Brigade Combat Team were not on well-established bases with lots of amenities. Instead, the soldiers expanded the small and Spartan facilities of the Polish troops.
During the deployment, soldiers in the company earned 19 Purple Hearts and 14 Army Commendation Medals with Valor Device, officials said.
First Lt. Joe McWilliams of Valdosta, Ga., recalled a four-day mission to the remote Combat Outpost Giro. His platoon walked more than 10 miles, McWilliams said, finding 11 IEDs along the way.
"We asked a lot of our soldiers," Brown said.
First Lt. Zach Rozar of Fayetteville, Tenn., described working with Afghan route-clearance patrols to pass along techniques that can be used once American troops leave the country.
He and McWilliams described sometimes grueling days in which getting only a few hours of sleep was not uncommon.
But the two young leaders said their efforts led to insurgents placing fewer IEDs toward the end of their tour.
A Company drove more than 8,000 miles in search of roadside bombs in Ghazni during its seven-month deployment.
The company clearance rate of 86 percent -- the soldiers cleared 56 IEDs and were struck by nine -- represented the best percentage in eastern Afghanistan, officials said.
The company, under the leadership of Capt. Michael Natalino, was tasked with clearing routes across the 1st Brigade Combat Team's area of operations, a part of Afghanistan that until then had been seen as a haven for insurgents.
That included parts of Highway 1, the main road in Afghanistan connecting Kabul to Kandahar.
Patrolling for hours at a time and often walking alongside their hulking armored vehicles to give them a better view of the terrain, the soldiers improved and expanded combat outposts, built bases for Afghan troops and made route repairs to allow for easy movement of U.S. forces.
In addition to their success on the battlefield, soldiers in the company produced a handbook for route clearance in Afghanistan and were interviewed by officials with the Washington-based Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization.
The company earned the praise of brigade commander Col. Trevor Bredenkamp, who said the soldiers were "among the elite companies in the engineer regiment," and 82nd Airborne Division commander Maj. Gen. John Nicholson.
"Their competence at conducting route clearance patrols in Ghazni province, Afghanistan, saved lives, ensured freedom of movement, and set the standard for all engineer companies in Regional Command-East," Nicholson said in a memo.
Now, the company hopes to win it first Itschner Plaque, which has been given since 1960. Several Fort Bragg units, including the 20th Engineer Brigade's 618th Engineer Company, have won in years past.
The 1st Brigade Combat Team, part of the 82nd Airborne Division, deployed in spring 2012 and returned in September.