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.

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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

Moving round-robin from truck to truck, Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Gregor of East Baldwin handled maintenance, Sgt. Seth Tillotson of Old Town checked communications, Spc. Brandon Keene of Limington tested each vehicle’s electronic warfare components, Sgt. Tim Jacobson of North Monmouth tallied tourniquets, litters and other medical supplies and Staff Sgt. Scott Laliberte of Norway made sure every personal and crew-served weapon was in working order.

Four vehicles – all the property of the New Jersey Guard company – didn’t meet the 133rd’s standards: Their personnel were reassigned to other trucks, their vehicles left behind for a future trip south.

“Several people were distraught,” Cote said tactfully. “But I think that set the stage and they understood what our expectations are.”

Finally, late Monday evening, the convoy personnel – just over 100 people all told – gathered in a large, empty hanger on FOB Shank for the mandatory safety briefing that precedes every journey outside the barbed wire.

Cote led off with a brief pep talk before handing the 30-minute briefing over to White. He told the soldiers that just after their arrival three days earlier, two IEDs had been found on the road over which they had just passed – a sign that the Taliban may have thought the convoy was on a shorter turnaround.

“So they know we’re here. Nothing to be worried about, nothing to be scared about, but something to be prepared for,” hollered Cote over the din of the generators just outside. “We’ve got great armor, we’ve got superior firepower, we’ve got better training. So don’t get thrown if something happens. Expect something to happen. Expect a vehicle to go down. Expect an IED to go off. Don’t freak out.”

Finally, just before midnight, they mounted up.

NOT YOUR 2004 CONVOY

U.S. military convoys have changed radically since Cote, 1st Sgt. Andrew Pattle of Harrison and other longtime members of the 133rd along for this ride ran over 100 convoys apiece during their deployment to Iraq nine years ago.

Where once they rode in porous Humvees (some so dilapidated that their doors were known to occasionally fall off), the soldiers now squeezed themselves into heavily armored, borderline-claustrophobic MRAPs – Army shorthand for Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles.

“We’re all going to get to know each other intimately tonight,” joked Sgt. Jacobson to his civilian seatmate as the legroom was established and the heavy, hydraulic ramp at the rear of the MRAP closed with a loud “thunk.”

Where once route clearance patrol, or RCP, could precede a convoy by several hours on the roads of Iraq, U.S. forces in Afghanistan now benefit from CARCO. Short for Combined Arms Route Clearance Operations, the recently implemented system couples sophisticated electronics with dismounted infantry and other layers of protection to clear the path for troop movements – often just minutes ahead of the actual convoy.

Hence the speed – or, more accurately, the lack thereof.

The average pace on this six-hour trip – about the distance from Biddeford to Boston – would be an agonizing 16 mph. In addition to the slow-moving CARCO unit ahead, the frequent speed bumps, Afghan National Army checkpoints and gravelly potholes prevented the heavily laden tractor-trailer units nestled between the MRAPs from ever exceeding 25 miles per hour.

That said, the convoy actually came to a stop only once – for a pre-planned, midtrip load check. Dangerous as they may be – a soldier outside his or her truck is vulnerable to small-arms fire – the brief stops are a necessary evil.

“Stopping is your worst enemy, but when you have a piece of half-million-dollar equipment on a trailer, you have to take the extra precautions to make sure no chains are coming loose, no bindings are coming loose,” explained White. “If something were to fall off, then we would be there probably another eight to 10 hours just trying to get it turned upright, plus get it back onto the trailer.”

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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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