By Sgt. Doug Roles, 56th SBCT PAO, MND-BJuly 15, 2009
TAJI, Iraq - Soldiers of the 856th Engineer Company, 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team slowly cruise the roads of the Taji area, north of Baghdad, trying to find anything that might hide a roadside bomb. When the engineers find something suspicious, they poke it.
It may seem like a strange job but it's a necessary one. Soldiers on the route clearance missions have a goal of finding emplaced improvised explosive devices before they can be used against other Soldiers or civilian motorists. Their toolbox includes Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles equipped with hydraulic arms that can "poke" at suspect items and dig through dirt or piles of trash. The teams also use metal detectors and the engineer-variant Stryker vehicle. Teams don't move very quickly. But speed is not the goal; vigilance is.
"It's very interesting because you never know what's going to happen out there," said Staff Sgt. Joshua Bentley of York, Pa., a squad leader with 856th's 2nd Platoon.
A typical mission can last hours. Bentley said the heat and the repetitiveness of the job wears on Soldiers. He said his squad has seen the same stretches of road, and the same garbage, many dozens of times. He said the key is for team members to keep the radio chatter going between vehicles and to call out familiar and unfamiliar objects by the road.
"You try to talk amongst each other," Bentley said, adding that driving a route every day helps Soldiers "know what's trash and what's not."
Bentley, a communications and sign language interpretation major at Bloomsburg University, deployed to Iraq with the 28th Infantry Division's Taskforce Dragoon in 2004-05. He said he believes the route clearance teams have done a good job so far. He said they have twice been attacked by IEDs, with "no real damage" to the vehicles, let alone to Soldiers.
"A lot of our job is months of boredom and minutes of terror," 1st Lt. Richard Gordon of Logan, Utah, 2nd platoon leader, said.
Gordon said his Soldiers performed well during those scary moments, adding that the most recent IED attack on his column, last week, did minimal damage to a vehicle though the subsequent investigation resulted in the arrest of two suspected insurgents.
Asked about the repetitiveness of the missions, Gordon said he stays focused by writing out his pre-mission briefing to the platoon every time, even though it's the same briefing. He likened his method to sergeants who still make sure junior enlisted Soldiers have performed their preventative maintenance checks on vehicles even though "They've done this PMCS hundreds of times."
Bentley said the engineer company also participates in missions to search for weapons caches. He said he feels both missions - route clearance and cache search - help make the local civilians safer.
"A lot of guys have come up and said 'We appreciate you guys,'" Bentley said.
Gordon said his platoon has come together as a team, saying the route clearance mission is not an easy one to master. Gordon moved to Pennsylvania to attend law school, from 2005-08, and jokes that he "stayed for the war." Before joining the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, he had served in the Utah National Guard as a medic.
One of Gordon's "junior" enlisted Soldiers brings a wealth of experience to the job. Spc. Joseph Biddle, an MRAP Buffalo arm operator and explosive ordinance disposal-trained engineer, said of the 120 missions his platoon has conducted, he's been on 110 of them.
"I'm here to go out. That's why I'm here," he said.
Biddle, a grandfather, enlisted in the active Army in 1980 and served until 1992, as a combat engineer. He reenlisted in 2004, with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard's 2nd Brigade. He then volunteered to deploy with the 56th SBCT. Part of the on-mission banter in Biddle's MRAP involves trading friendly barbs with younger Soldiers.
"I got out a long time ago," Biddle says. "But I'm certainly capable of doing the job of some kid."
Biddle, of Morgantown, W. Va., describes the morale of the platoon as good, but is quick to point out that "It's a Soldier's inalienable right to complain."
Jokes aside, Biddle says he gets focused for missions by reviewing on his laptop information he has compiled on various types ordinance. He said having knowledge of explosives is the key to operating around them with confidence. Biddle, who as a civilian is a large truck hydraulics system mechanic, has completed the operator and sapper portions of the Army's Route Reconnaissance and Clearance Course. He praised the military's "excellent" MRAP family of vehicles, saying he feels safe carrying out his mission in the vehicles.
"We've pulled right up to suspected IEDs," he said. "It's probably the safest vehicle here."
"Like others in the platoon, Biddle said he and his teammates "keep each other awake" by calling out roadside items on long missions. He said that the number of known items his team points out on missions continues to grow.
Biddle uses his years of experience to encourage other soldiers. He said he tells young Soldiers to be sure to hold on to keepsakes from this mission, especially coins given to them by sergeants major or certificates earned for service.
"We're out there everyday poking at weird stuff," Biddle said. "I tell them, there's not a lot of people who go around poking bombs with sticks. You should be proud of that."