Battalion clears more than 5,000 miles in Afghanistan
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BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (Sept. 28, 2015) -- Preparation for this vehicle doesn't include your typical fluid level and tire pressure checks. At 56,000 pounds, this "Buffalo" requires a pre-mission prep that includes claw, communication, navigation, and safety inspections.

The Buffalo, a specialized mine-resistant vehicle, is one of the most recognizable pieces of route clearance equipment. And the team using it, A Company, 21st Brigade Engineer Battalion, is responsible for clearing all major routes in the Bagram ground defense area, or BGDA. In country since January, it has cleared more than 3,000 miles of routes in more than 125 missions.

"We search for improvised explosive devices [IEDs] and deter its placement by conducting aggressive mounted and dismounted patrols," Platoon Leader 1st Lt. William Schmidt said. "We do our best to ensure everyone - coalition forces, Afghan army and policemen, plus local civilians - have freedom of maneuver in and around the BGDA."

The company, out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, falls under the 3rd Brigade Combat Team [Rakkasans] of the 101st Airborne Division. It is here on a nine-month deployment and will be heading home next month. There are just under 100 Soldiers in the company, and they are split between Bagram Airfield and Operating Base Fenty in eastern Afghanistan, where they clear routes for Train Advise Assist Command - East, or TAAC-E.

"There's no greater honor than protecting your fellow Soldiers, and our mission is to do exactly that," said Capt. William Toft, A Company, 21st Brigade Engineer Battalion commander. "Alpha Company has been providing protection across both the Bagram ground defense area and the TAAC-E ground defense zone for the last eight months. All told, in total, the company has cleared over 5,000 miles in the course of more than 200 patrols."

Schmidt arrived in country in April. As a platoon leader, he's responsible for planning, preparing, and overseeing the execution of all missions that his Sapper platoon conducts. He's also responsible for the overall safety, discipline, and morale within his platoon.

"The NCO [noncommissioned officer] leadership in this platoon is outstanding," he said. "For many of the squad leaders, this is their 4th or even 5th deployment. Their experience, combined with the discipline and attention to detail of the Soldiers in this platoon, are what make our unit incredibly effective."

The company consists of combat engineers, horizontal engineers, infantry, mortarmen, mechanics, forward observers, medics, an intelligence analyst, and a communications specialist.

"There is very little that we cannot do ourselves," Schmidt said. "We have an incredibly diverse team. Our company operates as a combined arms route clearance operation, meaning in addition to the typical engineer route clearance package, we have a squad of infantry that provides dismounted security along with a forward observer and mortar team to bring fires capabilities to the fight."

The majority of the battalion's training took place before deployment on Fort Campbell and the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, Louisiana, where it was able to conduct full-scale training missions in a controlled environment with experienced observers that provided feedback along the way. And, according to Schmidt, the training doesn't stop there.

"Here on Bagram, we train wherever, and whenever, we can," he said. "If we are not conducting missions, you can most likely find us training. We try to get to the range a couple times a month to work on marksmanship. We utilize any open areas we can find to practice dismounted patrolling and we are always looking for a good wall to practice our climbing abilities which get put to the test more than you'd think."

"The Soldiers have an intense amount of pride in their work," Toft said. "It's a tough job to go out each day and make sure that roads are safe, but the Soldiers of Alpha Company realize how important that is and as a result have performed extremely well."

Spc. Chad Kuhens, an Army brat from Frederick, Maryland, is a 240B gunner in the Buffalo.

"Being a gunner allows me to gain a unique perspective of the BGDA," he said. "I make sure to maintain vigilance in my sector to protect the rest of the platoon."

Sgt. Jordan Craig operates the Fassi arm on the mine-resistant, ambush-protected [MRAP] vehicle that usually leads the convoy.

"The Fassi arm is great for detecting IEDs and wire on the roads," he said. "Being the lead truck Fassi arm operator means that my driver and I are the primary detecting Soldiers in the platoon. We've been working together for months now, and we form an effective team."

Spc. Saul Cervantes, a driver, said that when he has his kit on, it's a tight squeeze once he gets inside his machine.

"You just have to get used to driving," he said. "The MRAPs aren't designed to be comfortable but they do a great job of keeping us safe if an IED goes off. I've been driving for the majority of this deployment and, after a few months, you get used to the vehicle."

Pvt. James Lane, from Eminence, Kentucky, is a mechanic attached to 1st Platoon, Alpha Company. He's responsible for operating the MRAP recovery vehicle, or MRV, and assisting the platoon with vehicle recovery operations.

"The vast number of gadgets in the MRV require months of training to master," he said. "I trained for 12 weeks in advanced individual training, then took two more 10-week classes to ensure I could provide timely, safe, and effective recovery capabilities to the platoon while on mission."

Regarding his specialty as a forward-deployed mechanic, Lane said it's like no other.

"I love it," he said. "I'd rather have this job than any other in the world. I can see where I'm making a difference."

"Our team is unique," Toft said. "Every single Soldier contributes to the overall success of the mission in ways we never would have been able to guess prior to our deployment. Our Soldiers have demonstrated their adaptability by taking on jobs well outside the normal scope of their military occupational specialty, and they've managed to succeed at every opportunity. I feel honored every day to be a member of such an extraordinary team."

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