December 29, 2013

Convoy cloaked in constant risk

Maine soldiers’ preparation and training provide a shield against the heart-stopping moments on a four-day, 160-mile mission.

FORWARD OPERATING BASE SHANK, Afghanistan — It’s not that Maine Army National Guard Spc. Seth Adams was nervous. It’s just that when you’re about to climb into the turret of the lead gun truck in a 41-vehicle convoy through the heart of Taliban territory, your pulse tends to quicken a little.

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Sgt. Eric Crabtree of Hope, a gunner with the Maine Army National Guard, rides in a gun turret at Forward Operating Base Shank shortly before his convoy left for Bagram last Monday.

Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Sgt. Robert Kurka and his wife, Sgt. Jessica Kurka, both of Durham, embrace as Robert prepares to leave with the convoy late on Dec. 20. South of Kabul, the convoy would run into snow, which adds to the danger of such trips because snow can effectively hide IEDs.

Additional Photos Below

“I like to get my senses at the very peak of what they can do. You’re like one big sensor,” said Adams early last week as darkness fell on Forward Operating Base Shank, an ever-shrinking NATO fire base some 55 miles south of Kabul. “Inside the vehicle, you’re pretty safe. But as a gunner, you have one buckle holding you to the harness and if there’s enough force, out the hatch you go.”

Adams, far from his hometown of Harpswell on the peaceful midcoast of Maine, is the youngest soldier in his battalion. He just turned 19.

But the kid has lungs.

“Adams is one of the more vocal gunners we have – he’s not afraid to yell at people in our way,” said 1st Lt. Joseph White, 36, of Brewer, who led the four-day, 160-mile round trip from Bagram Air Field, headquarters of the Maine Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion, to FOB Shank and back.

The mission’s objective: Pick up and escort back to Bagram the soldiers and equipment of the 150th Engineer Company of the New Jersey Army National Guard – one of four “line companies” now dismantling NATO’s International Security Assistance Force installations throughout eastern and northern Afghanistan under the direction of the 133rd.

The mission’s degree of difficulty?

“Very complex,” said Capt. Adam Cote, 40, of Springvale, who commands the 133rd’s 14-member Convoy Escort Team. Cote rode along on this trip to enhance the “command climate” while 1st Lt. White, just three months into his first combat deployment, rode herd over his own soldiers along with others from both New Jersey and West Virginia attached to the 133rd.

“What we needed was an experienced team that could pull it together and get everyone on the same page,” Cote continued. “That’s not an easy thing to do when everyone comes from different units. You’ve got to turn that into a team in a very short amount of time.”

And should they fail even slightly – be it a vehicle breakdown or a sleepy driver who rolls his truck into a ditch – these soldiers run a very real risk of being wounded or killed.

“Stopping is our worst enemy,” said White. “It gives (the Taliban) time to get organized and get set up (down the road) and wait for us.”

‘THEY KNOW WE'RE HERE’

The multi-vehicle mission departed Bagram late on the night of Friday, Dec. 20, divided equally into two “chalks” several miles apart to reduce the risk of traveling in a column that combined would snake out as far as four or five miles. Nine long hours later, slowed by snow that rarely falls south of Kabul, the trucks all arrived safely at FOB Shank – also known as “Rocket City” because it’s a frequent target in a region heavily infiltrated by the Taliban.

“They can use the snow to camouflage an IED (improvised explosive device) on the road,” noted Staff Sgt. Jacob Pierce, 33, of Fairfield, who works back home as a deputy for the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office and commanded the second chalk. On the bright side, Pierce added, “the snow reminded us of home.”

For three days, White, Pierce and their hand-picked team of inspectors prepared the bigger return convoy – this time fully loaded with heavy equipment chained to flatbed trailers – for the trip back to Bagram.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Units in the 41-truck convoy from FOB Shank arrive safely at Bagram Air Field in the early morning of Dec. 24. The next day, it was reported that an unexploded IED was found along the convoy’s route just an hour or two after it had passed.

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Sgt. 1st Class Kameel Farag of Oakland, right, welcomes 1st Sgt. Andrew Pattle of Harrison and other members of the Convoy Escort Team back to Bagram Air Field on Dec. 24.

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First Sgt. Andrew Pattle of Harrison, sitting in the back of a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, checks on the spacing of vehicles behind his truck as the 41-truck convoy leaves Forward Operating Base Shank with the destination of Bagram Air Field just after midnight on Dec. 24.

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Spc. Carl Ahlquist of Scarborough enjoys a cigar before setting out from Bagram Air Field with the Convoy Escort Team on Dec. 20.

  


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