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.

(Continued from page 2)

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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.

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Another serious security threat: the fatigue that comes with driving slowly through the darkness, peering through the steel mesh that surrounds the entire MRAP (windshield included) to repel rocket-propelled grenades.

White’s gunner, Sgt. Eric Crabtree of Hope, positioned the microphone of a spare radio headset next to a small speaker hooked up to his smartphone. Soon, his playlist – Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Jane’s Addiction – provided a scratchy distraction from the hypnotic roar of the MRAP’s diesel engine.

Between songs, Cote and Jacobson swapped World War II stories about their grandfathers – Cote’s fought on Iwo Jima, Jacobson’s flew bomber missions – to pass the time and, more importantly, to keep everyone in the truck awake.

A few miles back in his truck, Pierce followed his own routine for fighting off sleep: Dehydrate beforehand to forestall the need to urinate. Then, around the halfway point, down six or seven 8-ounce cans of Rip It – each containing 105 milligrams of eye-popping caffeine.

“I used to work the overnight shift with the sheriff’s office,” explained Pierce.

But about that bladder issue. Stuck in a cramped truck, restrained by a five-point harness for hours at a time (the longest stretch the Convoy Escort Team has gone to date is 20 hours without exiting the MRAPs), what’s a fully hydrated passenger to do?

“You find innovative ways,” confided White, referring to the empty, wide-necked Gatorade bottles that most soldiers make sure to keep within easy reach.

As Tuesday morning’s predawn hours rolled slowly by, the convoy’s primary objective was to make it through Kabul – a dicey place for mobile U.S. forces at any time – before the morning rush hour rendered the route downright perilous.

Approaching the city, radio alerts went out over the convoy’s frequency about a man on his porch who had suddenly taken out his cellphone (useless against the MRAP’s signal-jamming capabilities), a car approaching from a side road, anything that in a few seconds might escalate from the harmless to the heart-stopping.

“It’s kind of nerve-wracking because you never know if one of them is just going to turn into you and try to hit you or something like that,” said Spc. Adams, the baby-faced lead gunner.

Adding to the jitters are the many and varied items along the side of the road – each a potential IED – that grow more numerous the closer a convoy gets to Afghanistan’s largest city.

“The thing is, anything out there can be an IED. I mean there’s fuel cans on the side of the road all the time,” said Adams. “When you do an IED class, they all say watch out for fuel cans, (but) they’re everywhere. You can’t freak out every time you see one.”

On this morning, the convoy cleared Kabul right around 4 a.m., right on schedule. An hour and a half later, White pointed out the left-front windshield and said, “Look.”

Off in the distance, it was Bagram Air Field, an oasis of light surrounded by the still dark, silhouetted peaks of Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush mountain range.

Home at last.

Piling out of their trucks, stretching their cramped legs and embracing like long-lost brothers, the Maine soldiers and their out-of-state counterparts didn’t yet know how lucky they were.

A day later, as the entire battalion celebrated Christmas inside Bagram’s protective perimeter, an intelligence report came in that an unexploded IED had been found along the convoy’s route just an hour or two after it passed. Maybe it was placed there after the convoy passed – then again, maybe it simply failed to go off.

Then on Friday, another convoy taking the exact same route through Kabul was attacked just after noon by a suicide bomber driving an explosive-laden vehicle. Three NATO soldiers were killed in the blast.

But the 133rd, at least, made it back in one piece – from young Spc. Adams in the first gun turret all the way back to Spc. Daniel Philbrick, 34, of Cape Elizabeth in the last.

For Sgt. Pierce, the deputy sheriff more accustomed to the roads of central Maine, it was the perfect end to a very long night.

“It was boring,” Pierce said. “But like I tell my guys, a boring convoy is a safe convoy. It means we all got home.”

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

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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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