GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — In the battle against roadside bombs, it’s the enemy who chooses when and where to fight.

Members of Task Force Gila spent a year combating improvised explosive devices on Iraq’s treacherous roads, clearing 60,000 kilometers without a fatality, said the task force commander, Lt. Col. Ben Bigelow.

The task force was named for the 9th Engineer Battalion mascot, the Gila monster, and included 900 personnel from the 9th and the 172nd’s signal, military intelligence and headquarters companies. Members of Company B, 9th Engineer Battalion cleared another 20,000 kilometers of road in Diyala province as part of Task Force 3rd Battalion, 66th Armor Regiment. The only engineers injured by roadside bombs were four members of Company B, wounded in an attack in Diyala.

Task Force Gila was based at Forward Operating Base Kalsu in Babil province but spread its members across an area encompassing five Iraqi provinces. Its primary mission was route clearance, Bigelow said.

“We had our fair share of IEDs here, but nowhere near the density of Baghdad or [Multi-National Division]-North, or even Diyala,” said Bigelow, who has deployed to Iraq four times.

During the engineers’ 2006-2008 deployment to West Baghdad with the then 2nd “Dagger” Brigade, their mission involved intensive route clearance. During their most recent deployment, they were spread across a much larger area searching for IEDs that were a lot more scarce, he said.

The mission entailed long hours on the road in heavily armored vehicles such as Buffaloes, Huskies, Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles and RG-31s (armored vehicles). With IEDs few and far between, it was a challenge to stay alert and “on mission” for an entire year, Bigelow said.

“Our soldiers spent a lot of time just driving around in circles,” Bigelow said. “Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time nothing happened, but you never know when the enemy is going to come and decide it’s his turn. In the IED defeat business, he wins with just one death.”

The engineers found fewer than 40 IEDs during the deployment. There were about 10 IED strikes on their convoys, but few were effective, he said.

Staff Sgt. Craig Horstman, 30, a combat engineer from Greenville, Ky., said he did more than 120 route-clearance missions, averaging six hours each. An IED exploded in front of his vehicle on one mission but didn’t do any damage.

The only other IED he encountered was one that Iraqis led him and his men to, he said.

The engineers’ primary tools in the counter IED fight were observation and interaction with Iraqi security forces, Bigelow said.

“The Iraqi army and police in our area have a great reporting capacity and IED find capacity. What we have done is pass the mission off to them,” he said, adding that the Iraqis found many more IEDs than his unit did.

Iraqi forces and members of the task force performed regular combined route-clearance missions, and the Iraqis developed their own explosive ordnance disposal units, he added.

When members of Task Force Gila weren’t searching for bombs, they provided engineering support to the brigade by improving bases and building range complexes for Iraqi security forces. The engineers also built a police academy for the Iraqis in Karbala and improved local roads and bridges, he said.

During the deployment, Gila soldiers made it as far as the Iranian border in Wasit province, where they cleared routes and improved roads linking border forts.

The task force’s military intelligence soldiers developed a targeting methodology that helped capture numerous high-value individuals while the signal soldiers provided communications across a third of Iraq. An unmanned aerial vehicle platoon in the task force flew more than 750 missions and racked up 3,800 hours of flight, Bigelow said.

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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