By 1st Lt. Rachel FikesFebruary 23, 2013
LAGHMAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan - He squints as the alarm clock blasts at 3:30 a.m., Spc. Kyle Gutfleisch is one of 29 soldiers who make up Route Clearance Platoon 73, C Company, 4th Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division. He and the platoon are about to conduct a route clearance mission along Highway 7. He grabbed his toothbrush and shaving kit and walked to the closest latrine to conduct his personal hygiene.
A few minutes later, the soldiers of the platoon huddle around the platoon leader to receive their mission brief. They only recognize him by the sound of his voice because the motor pool is still dark. The small amount of light coming from the vehicles that are started casts silhouettes on the ground and the other vehicles. It's chilly this morning and the smell of coffee permeates the air. With the mission brief complete, it's time to roll out.
Gutfleisch and four others climbed into the Buffalo, a 13-foot-tall, armored beast of a vehicle used on route clearance missions. The name fits it perfectly. The engine noise makes conversation impossible in the vehicle so they each put on a headset. After a radio check and a stop at the weapon test fire pit, the Buffalo and the other vehicles of the platoon begin to move to Highway 7.
It is clear that this crew has worked together before; four of the five served together in Mosul, Iraq, in 2010 to 2011. They joke and tease each other as they continuously scan the road for anything out of the ordinary. They feed off of each other, working collectively like a well oiled machine.
"After working together for so long, everything just comes naturally," said Gutfleisch, a native of York, Pa. "There is a bond, a sense of brotherhood between us."
That statement is not just a cliché to this crew; Gutlfleisch named his newborn son after the crew's gunner, Spc. Frank McNabb, a 21-year-old from Dallas, Texas. The younger Gutfleisch is also McNabb's godson.
As patrol advances along Highway 7, makeshift villages come into view. The crew knows every twist and turn on this route; they have covered it numerous times during this deployment. They point out to each other the areas where improvised explosive devices could be emplaced.
"We have no idea what we may run into while on mission, which is why we are cautious and constantly prepared for anything that could happen," said McNabb as he tightens the grip on his weapon.
RCP 73 has been clearing this route for nearly four months and, so far, has been extremely fortunate. Even though there were an estimated 27 IEDs discovered on this single stretch of road in the past five years, they have yet to encounter any.
Iraq, however, was a different story.
"I have been blown up so many times, I honestly couldn't tell you how many IEDs I've actually encountered," said Staff Sgt. Richard Lugo, who has deployed four times in 10 years as a combat engineer. "I'm fortunate that the most I've had to endure is a string of headaches. I think I have a guardian angel watching over me, because others have not always been so lucky."
The mission today is relatively short, just two hours, compared to some of their previous operations.
"We have done missions that were as short as two hours and as long as 48. The longer they are, the bigger toll they take on you," said Spc. Ryan Hogan of Woburn, Ma. "This is why these come in handy." He shows off his coffee energy drink and takes a swig.
As they continue the mission, small children gather at a gas station and wave enthusiastically. The crew returns their waves. RCP 73 takes pride in helping the local population while on their missions. Anything that they can do to make a local's life easier, they do with haste and selfless intentions.
"9/11 made a huge impact on me," said Lugo of Victoria, Texas. "I joined shortly after, to make a positive difference in this world, to make someone's life better, and that is exactly what we do on these missions."
The platoon frequently hands out candy to children and bottles of water and food to people while passing through villages. Their concern for others, however, extends beyond just candy and water. They have stopped to save the day for Afghans on two different occasions during this deployment.
In December, one of the crew members spotted a gathering of villagers and halted the convoy to see if they could help. They saw a small girl lying on the ground in obvious need of medical attention. 2nd Lt. Daniel Skawski, the platoon leader, and Spc. Joshua Servian, the platoon medic, rushed to the scene. They quickly learned that the little girl had been hit by a man passing by on a bike. After asking her father's permission to provide medical treatment, the Americans moved the girl to a nearby shop to ensure privacy and safety.
Once indoors, Servian assessed that she had fractured her tibia and fibula. He took her vitals and proceeded to splint her leg. Servian instructed her father to keep her leg elevated and to avoid moving it on their trip to the hospital in Jalalabad.
"I felt a sense of joy and accomplishment after helping the little girl. While I had little communication between her and her father, I believe they were appreciative," said Servian, native of Wenatchee, Wa.
Skawski, 24, from Macungie, Pa., was excited that his platoon could help.
"Everyone's demeanor was good and the whole platoon had smiles on their faces. They definitely liked that they were able to help out the locals in some way," said Skawski.
On a different mission, the platoon used the power of one of their route clearance vehicles to pull a tractor out of a ditch for a local farmer.
"The villagers were happy, waving and cheering us on. Days like this make me proud to be a combat engineer," said 22-year-old Hogan.
As they pull back into combat outpost Xio Haq, the crew breathed a sigh of relief. The mission was a quiet success; the most excitement came from a blown tire.
The crew of RCP 73 is young; they range in age from 20-27. Yet their experience and contributions go beyond their years. They put their lives on the line every day without a second thought. They travel roads so dangerous that most people would do everything possible to avoid them. But this is what makes the crew of RCP 73 different.