Buffalo runs help offset roadside bombs in Iraq
June 23, 2007
BABIL PROVINCE, Iraq — At 6:13 a.m. last Sunday, Staff Sgt. Ryan Finn cracked open his first highly-caffeinated Rip It drink.
Two Rip Its and three hours later, Finn and other members of 3rd Platoon, Company A, Special Troops Battalion for the 4th Brigade Combat Team Airborne, 25th Infantry Division, were only halfway done with their tedious, tense mission. Their job is route clearance, edging along the roads in Babil province south of Baghdad and hunting for roadside bombs.
Teams in Iraq like this one have had similar jobs for years. But in recent months, the insurgents have upped the danger with EFPs, or explosively formed projectiles. Those sophisticated bombs strike military vehicles in a daisy-chain explosion, with multiple fireballs driving clean through the armored trucks.
Worse, the enemy has improved its hiding techniques with the EFPs. The makers of these cylinder-shaped bombs morph them into rocks, curbsides, mounds of dirt. Finn, 23, of North Bay, N.Y., says he once saw one hanging in the midst of a tree.
“They are our worst enemy,” Finn said. “They are very, very camouflaged.”
Hunting for these hidden enemies is a slow and scary process. Finn sits shotgun in the Buffalo, an anti-mine truck with a double-jointed arm that scrapes through dirt in search of bombs. Finn operates the arm. Twice, while digging for a suspected explosive, it has detonated. Shrapnel scars pockmark the windows on the truck.
But Company A has another way of looking for bombs. They often walk alongside the Buffalo, an attempt to both spot the hidden explosive and to catch the triggermen who often set them off, according to Capt. Matthew Johnson, the company commander.
“We literally take them by surprise,” said Staff Sgt. Brad Travis, 23, of Hammond, La., and a member of the company’s 2nd Platoon.
Johnson, 29, of Chadwicks, N.Y., says it’s working. For every bomb that goes off in their area, the company has found three others before they detonate. And while nearly every member of the company has been shot at or been near a bomb explosion, no one has been hurt on walking patrols.
The company did lose three soldiers on May 21, Johnson said. They were riding in the Buffalo, one of the most secure vehicles the military uses, when they rolled on top of a bomb. Two other soldiers were wounded, Johnson said.
Avoiding explosions is only part of the challenge, Finn and other soldiers say. Staying awake and alert on the slow-moving, daylong patrols can be difficult. Finn and many others use Rip It, a drink loaded with caffeine that, according to Finn, tastes more bitter than coffee. “And it’s amazing what a splash of ice water will do,” he said.
On Sunday, Finn used the Buffalo’s arm three times to look for bombs. Three times, it came up empty.
Only once did he have to check on another soldier in the vehicle, Spc. Justin Walas, 23, of South Pines, S.C. “Doc, you awake?” Finn checked on the medic as the morning wore on and the Buffalo’s air conditioning system weakened against the Iraqi summer sun.
“Yeah,” Walas said and shuffled in his seat. He turned and looked out the window, searching among the dirt and debris for more danger.