Engineer crews clearing out roads to eliminate possible spots to stash IEDs
BALAD, Iraq — While most soldiers in Iraq cringe at the thought of encountering an IED, Army engineers are making it easier for them to do just that.
As part of Task Force Right of Way, Company C, 489th Engineer Battalion is clearing vegetation and debris from Iraqi Highway 1, known to troops as Main Supply Route Tampa. Enemy insurgents have attacked troops along the route with the improvised explosive devices, crude bombs detonated on command.
The engineers want to give passing troops a fighting chance to spot IEDs by flattening medians and shoulders along the thoroughfare.
“It makes it harder for Haji, the enemy, to come out and hide an IED because there’s nothing for him to hide it behind or under,” said Sgt. 1st Class Ed Fletcher said. “Soldiers that are traveling down the highway can see [IEDs] easier.”
The Arkansas-based Reserve unit began work several months ago near Bayji, north of Tikrit. Its goal is to clear the highway south to Taji, outside Baghdad. Similar teams are beginning work in other parts of Iraq.
The unit falls under the 130th Engineer Brigade based in Hanau, Germany.
Last week, when the 50-man team headed out at 7 a.m., a cold fog hung low to the ground, clouding visibility past 50 feet. The unit began just south of Samarra, a hot spot for attacks against U.S. troops.
“This war is different,” said Capt. Kirk Claunch, Company C commander, as his troops set out. “It’s being fought by terrorists. And this is the best way they’ve found to fight us.”
Claunch, 37, who in civilian life practices personal injury law in Fort Worth, Texas, often is out in front of his team, peering into bushes and ditches. While the crew uses blast-resistant vehicles in their search, and bulldozers to plow the ground, someone has to look in the hard-to-get places. Most often, the bombs are found that way, Claunch said.
“The motivation is, I don’t want that young soldier, driving past in a Humvee to be killed because he could not see a hidden IED,” Claunch said, as a supply convoy whizzed by.
Each day out, the engineers make progress at a steady pace. Working together with little more than a nod or hand signals, soldiers anticipate one another’s moves to clear vegetation and provide security.
Driving his bulldozer through a row of shrubs, Sgt. Christian Dornhurst rams into a tree, cracking its base. Spc. Dusty Owens, 19, of Glenwood, Ark., revs his chainsaw and sinks it into the base of the snapped trunk and cuts away some limbs. At times, the engineers let the trees stand, Claunch said.
Nearby, Spc. Nathaniel Marler, 20, of Springfield, Mo., stops traffic so Dornhurst can use the bulldozer to push the trees and debris across the street into a ditch. Several Iraqis glare at the soldiers. Some gesture in anger.
“These people get pretty pissed off when we stop them,” Marler says. “They are always in a hurry. Where do they have to go?”
The crew has received occasional rifle fire, but it is mostly inaccurate shots that don’t justify a response. The more immediate dangers are Iraqi drivers zooming their cars through the work areas, says Sgt. Joshua Smith, 24, a police officer from Joplin, Mo.
“There’s no traffic laws over here at all,” he says. “They do what they want.”
Up ahead, troops in the Meerkat minesweeper search for anything metal buried in the ground, followed by a Buffalo that digs up any suspicious objects.
So far, enemy forces have not attacked the small engineer force, which obviously is hindering the insurgents’ plans to attack troops. Just in case, heavily armed squads of troops stand guard.
“If he tries to take us on while we’re here working, he’s going to die,” Claunch says of the enemy. “He can attack us, but he can never stop the mission overall. As long as the Army is committed, we’ll continue to make it hard for them.”