Back in February, when I was embedded with the airborne brigade from Fort Richardson, I hitched a ride from one base to another with 1st Lt. Ryan Hintz and his platoon. It turned out to be an eventful trip.
Hintz’ platoon is part of the 425 Brigade Special Troops Battalion. Their mission that afternoon, besides driving some 25 miles from Kalsu to Falcon, on the southern outskirts of Baghdad, was to look for IEDs — roadside bombs.
Improvised Explosive Devices come in a wide variety of shapes and forms — mines, artillery shells, mortar rounds, many of them looted from Saddam’s ammo dumps after the U.S. invasion. IEDs are triggered by timers, cell phones, garage door openers, wires or the weight of a vehicle rolling over them. They’re disguised in trash, shaped like rocks or mud, stuck in potholes, even melted into the pavement.
“You fear ’em, we clear ’em,” said Hintz.
The backbone of the American supply line in Iraq is Route Tampa, a four-lane highway that runs from Kuwait north to Baghdad and beyond. Super convoys of civilian contractors haul the food, ammo and supplies up Tampa every night after curfew.
Insurgents try to stop them with IEDs.
Hintz and his men were heading out in late afternoon to find them.
And what an odd looking convoy. Most of the vehicles were monster RG-31s, heavily armored South African mine clearing trucks.
Even bigger than the RG-31 was the Buffalo that would ride toward the rear of our convoy, a truck with an big claw to poke into trash piles or black plastic bags.
“Do you know how heavy they are?” I asked Sgt. 1st Class Keith Nordlof, the platoon explosive ordnance disposal officer, as the Buffalo rumbled into line.
“Yes, I do,“ he answered. “They’re heavy.”
Nordlof would be in the lead RG-31. I was in the second RG-31 with Hintz. The vehicle can seat 10 when used as a troop transport, but we’d only be five. Hintz gave me the safety rundown. If I had to get out the tailgate, I’d have to push about 500 pounds of door and bullet-proof glass to get out.
The weight makes the soldiers comfortable. It’s helped them get through IED attacks.
“It wasn’t much fun, but we survived,” Hintz said. It hurts when you’re thrown around inside the vehicle by the blast, your helmet hitting the solid roof, but the armor of the RG-31 held, he said.
Diesel throbbing, we bounced down the road out of Forward Operating Base Kalsu, crossed the southbound lane and median, and turned north on Tampa. The view outside the windows was distorted by the thick glass.
The pace slowed to a crawl when the convoy reached its patrol area. Still, when our driver spotted what looked like a pumpkin wrapped in black tape in a pothole to our left, we were going too fast to stop. The next RG-31 in our convoy confirmed the obvious: we had just found an IED.
Hintz radioed the discovery to base and the waiting began. The convoy would standby and guard the site until engineers arrived to positively identify the bomb and blow it up.
Dusk turned quickly to night, and with it came the curfew. A civilian Bongo — the ever-present lightweight flatbed truck made by Kia — attempted to scoot by us, going north in the southbound lane. They were stopped by another vehicle in our patrol.
“Are they hostile, 10-7?” Hintz asked on the radio.
“I don’t know,” came the answer from “10-7.” “It’s a man and his 12-year-old son.”
Hintz weighed the likelihood that they were innocent travelers. He decided they were and let them go.
Nordlof, in the first RG-31, was concerned about a plastic trash bag on the right shoulder and asked for the Buffalo. Every one was looking for a secondary bomb, one that would explode on rescuers who came to help the victims of the first.
The Buffalo rumbled up from the back of the convoy. With it’s claw, it tore open the bag. Nothing there but trash.
It was black outside. An ambush was always possible, so we sat in darkness. The gunners in the turrets of the RG-31s watched the fields surrounding the highway with night-vision goggles.
An empty supply convoy rushed by in the southbound lanes, 26 vans and tankers nearly bumper-to-bumper.
The engineers arrived. They identified the bomb as a VS1 Italian anti-tank mine. The black tape was a pressure trigger, designed to detonate the bomb when a vehicle rolled over it. It wasn’t a particularly powerful bomb — the mine was meant to knock the tread off a tank and disable it, not blow it up. But it would’ve destroyed a semi in a supply convoy.
Two hours and 50 minutes after we left Kalsu, the engineers detonated the bomb. Rolling again, we reached the gates of Falcon an hour later.
“Those things hurt when you run over them,” Hintz said. “We just saved someone’s life today.”