KANDAHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan - As armored vehicles improve, killing soldiers with roadside bombs becomes increasingly difficult. So insurgents do what they can to separate the two.

Roadside bombs are still effective in stopping a convoy. If the insurgents can disable a vehicle, they can force U.S. troops out of the protective vehicles to investigate, exposing them to secondary bombs — increasingly a weapon of choice in the badlands of southern Afghanistan.

Soldiers with the 4th Engineer Battalion’s 2nd Platoon, 569th Engineer Company are well aware of the risks of dismounting vehicles along Highway 1, the main road connecting Kandahar and Kabul.

Land mines are strewn across the area, and picking them out of the darkness and uneven soil off the road is difficult. Insurgents have also started using booby traps to target foot patrols.

But on a paved road — where culverts are the favored place to plant bombs, many of which include hundreds of pounds of explosives — an on-the-ground peek is sometimes the only way to check when cameras attached to hydraulic arms can’t get a clear view.

"This is kind of a last resort," Sgt. 1st Class John Teets said. "If you can’t see it, sometimes you’ve got to get there and take a look."

Sticking your face in a culvert that might well explode takes some getting used to. Or, as Pfc. Marty Wright put it more bluntly: "You’ve got to have balls to do what we do."

Stealth is not a route clearance team’s strong suit. When you roll in 15-ton vehicles, you’re hard to miss, and insurgents study the soldiers’ procedures and adapt. The teams rely on heavy armor, their trucks designed specifically to take a blast and deflect its force away from the passengers.

With every improvement in armor, though, the bombs get bigger. With every new technology to detect and deflect bombs, more sophisticated explosives pop up with deadly consequences.

For soldiers in the 3rd Platoon of the 4th Engineer Battalion’s 62nd Engineer Sapper Company, the armored vehicles were not enough.

They recently went on a straight-forward sounding run to a small base tucked into the mountains in the Panjwai district to check on a couple of troublesome roads and to clear the way for Canadian forces battling for control of a Taliban stronghold.

But it turned into a bomb-plagued 19-hour endurance test. Three bomb blasts in three hours blew one of platoon’s vehicles apart, damaged bomb-detecting equipment and meant that many of the combat engineers were spending much of the day as foot soldiers. They walked the dirt road and farm fields in a dusty, gaping valley southwest of Kandahar, trying to find secondary bombs.

If something went "boom," the heavily armored trucks just a few yards away wouldn’t do them much good.

The first bomb of the day left a 4-foot-deep crater the length of the road, violently jerking the front of an RG-31 into the air. The second, smaller bomb hit just a couple of hundred yards farther, damaging another RG-31’s rollers, a set of wheels in front of the trucks meant to take the brunt of the blast before the truck does.

In between, 3rd Platoon soldiers got out of their trucks and eyed the surrounding farms in a dusty, gaping valley for possible ambushes, scouring the area for secondary bombs. With uneven, overgrown terrain, there seemed to be an infinite number of hiding places for explosives.

As the engineers pushed on, there came the familiar, soul-shaking thud. A breathless silence followed in a nearby vehicle as a tan-black cloud of earth and smoke billowed up from the road.

"Three (bombs) in one day — that’s a hat trick," said Spc. Zackary Thompson, a 20-year-old gunner still suffering the effects of a concussion he got when he smacked his head on a .50-caliber machine gun in the day’s first blast.

The 4th Engineer Battalion has lost 11 soldiers this deployment with an additional 18 injured severely enough to be flown out of country for treatment. On this day, no one was seriously injured.

Pvt. Shayne Shipley, 19, of Douglas, Wyo., is one of the few soldiers in his platoon who has not been in a vehicle hit by an improvised explosive device. After spending the first part of the day lamenting his luck, hoping for a hit and the Combat Action Badge that comes with it, he had changed his mind after the three blasts.

"I don’t want to get hit by an IED anymore after seeing what happened to that Husky," he said quietly, referring to the damaged mine detection vehicle.

Eighteen hours into the mission and already missing an RG-31 from a bomb blast two days before, the troops now were out of a Husky, too. Worse, it appeared almost certain that more bombs lay ahead on the road. And the night had become pitch black, making it even more treacherous.

Fortunately, Canadian forces were nearby. Their Badger, a tank-bulldozer hybrid made to cut temporary roads out of the dirt, was called in. For a group used to clearing paths for other troops, it was time to take a back seat and follow the Badger to safety through farm fields on a road too new for bombs.

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