FOB KUSHAMOND, Afghanistan - For crews of Second Platoon, 211th Engineer Company (sappers), South Dakota Army National Guard - the "Big Dogs," as they are called - the trip here was as monotonous as it was long.
Assembling at FOB Sharana before sunrise, Second Platoon members and their interpreter, Habib (not his real name), gathered in cool temperatures under a clear, deep purple pre-dawn Afghan sky for their mission brief.
It has become a familiar process since first taking up their route clearance mission in November: Prepare their trucks for combat, receive a brief that spells out the dangers that lie ahead of them, and then mount up - always without question or complaint.
And while their role here - finding IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, buried along the roads they patrol - has not gotten any easier since they first arrived after mobilization training at Fort McCoy, Wis., as part of the 203rd Engineer Battalion, Missouri Army National Guard, their ability to perform their mission has vastly improved.
But no amount of training and improvement is a guarantee that somewhere, sometime, in some place a resourceful enemy won't find a way to strike.
And on a recent mission, the Big Dogs were reminded of why they are here.
It is remote and isolated, to be sure. Indeed, the patch of Afghanistan where Second Platoon patrolled recently might best be described as "The Wilderness."
Bucolic and desolate, this outpost in the southern portion of Paktika Province represents, by the presence of a contingent of U.S. troops, a guarantee to the region's scattered settlements that NATO hasn't forgotten about them.
But getting here is no picnic. Much of the route is primitive and uncomfortable. And, on the first day of their mission, windy conditions kicked up so much hazy dust that it choked crews inside their vehicles and made visibility extremely difficult.
Still, some found reason for optimism and reassurance.
"I feel better with the helicopters overhead," said Sgt. First Class Jon Albers of Madison, S.D., of the two Apache gunships that provided overhead route security for the convoy for much of the mission.
Spc. John Thomas of Mabane, N.C., near Raleigh, N.C., a member of the North Carolina Army National Guard who was activated from the Inactive Ready Reserve to help augment the 211th for this mission, found another source of inspiration: His newborn daughter.
"She was born in January," Thomas said, carefully guiding the RG-31 MRAP (mine resistant ambush protected) vehicle he was driving through the same tire path as the vehicle ahead of him. "I got to go home for it."
"Is your wife going to take her to see the Easter bunny?" asked Spc. Jared Franka, of Garrettson, S.D., the vehicle's gunner, over the intercom.
"Yeah," Thomas answered. "She spent $150 on her - $60 just for the dress."
Nevertheless Albers, accustomed to the ambiguity and unpredictable nature of the enemy, reflected on the challenge of this particular mission.
He said the platoon hadn't been down this route in some time, and "you just never know when or where" the enemy would concentrate. The route could be littered with IEDs or it could be clear of them, he noted ominously.
Franka had more practical things on his mind.
"When we get there, I'm going to shower just as soon as I can," he announced.
The crews pulled into Kushamond in late afternoon after a bruising, battering ride in their MRAPs. The wind was blowing the dust in sheets and the Big Dogs struggled to shield themselves from it. So strong was the wind, in fact, that most of the Velcro-style window flaps on their assigned sleeping tent wouldn't hold.
The incessant thrashing of the flaps was noisy and distracting but crews seemed to ignore it as they slowly filed into the tent and each chose a dust-covered cot in which to drop off assault packs and spread out sleeping bags. Some gathered in small groups to chat while others shed gear and weapons and stretched out for a nap before evening chow.
Despite the conditions, all were mindful that they could be - and had been - much worse.
"The last time we were here, we had to sleep outside and it was well below 20 degrees Fahrenheit," said Spc. J.D. Hanson, of Madison, S.D.
Later that night, with the wind still blowing and a number of tent flaps continuing to flail about, temperatures inside the canvas-plastic structure dropped significantly, completely devoid of warm air from the heat ducts.
In the morning Spc. Eli McGehee, of Huron, S.D., would discover that someone had redirected the ductwork from their tent to another inhabited by Afghan National Army soldiers.
Smiling, McGehee mused, "Can you believe that?" as he reclaimed the ductwork and reconnected it to the Big Dogs' tent.
Second Platoon had no pressing duties to attend to on the second day of their mission, so many took advantage of the opportunity to sleep in. Others, perhaps accustomed to getting up at an earlier hour, rose and dressed, some heading off to the chow hall, which was aptly named the "Dusty Poo," while still others found the showers. Cramped and dirty, the small white Conex's that served as the showers for the small outpost were nonetheless welcome; the water was at least hot and it gave crews a chance to wash off the layers of dust and grime from the first day's journey.
mid-morning everyone had risen, showered and had chow, and the majority headed to their trucks to perform various maintenance duties, and to prepare them for the trip home to FOB Sharana the next day. Afterwards, and throughout the remainder of the day the men of the Big Dog Platoon relaxed - with a game of cards, a book or magazine, or an additional nap.
The conversations were light, with plenty of laughter and banter. It was obvious these crews were part of a tightly-knit group that cared for each other and the mission they were tasked with performing.
In the early afternoon, however - perhaps around 1 p.m. or so - several of the napping crews were jolted suddenly from their racks by the sound of a crashing boom which, for the initial seconds sounded for all the world like an explosion within the compound.
In reality, it was the sound of one of the bases' 155 mm howitzers, which - the Big Dogs later found out - was conducting live-fire exercises. For the next several minutes, their napping - a rarity in and of itself for these crews - was interrupted with the booming reports of the large towed artillery pieces. For crews used to hearing explosions, the artillery - familiar though it was - could still rattle nerves.
Later, in the evening, Albers - enjoying a smoke with Sgt. Jeffrey Dufek, of Sturgis, S.D., was trying to be pragmatic, if not prophetic, about the next day's journey.
"It wouldn't surprise me if we didn't have a few of them (IEDs) waiting for us on the way back," he said.
Dufek agreed. He, too, was intimately familiar with the enemy's relentlessness.
The morning of the third day began early, which was typical, with crews being "on the trucks" well before dawn. The Big Dogs' mission, besides simply getting back "home" to Sharana, would be to clear the route for a combat logistics convoy filled with vital supplies for the base and much-needed parts for vehicles.
The lack of ambient light, either from Kushamond or the surrounding wilderness, made it much easier to see the billions of stars overhead, still twinkling brilliantly in the pre-dawn darkness.
The morning air was cool but there was little wind for a change and so the coolness lacked the bite of the previous morning's chill. Crews huddled around Master Sgt. John Dornbusch of Wessington Springs, S.D., the convoy's commander, for the traditional brief.
"Intel says there could be some IEDs along the first part of the route, but probably not past that," Dornbusch told the gathered Big Dogs. "Still, we need to pay attention the entire way."
The brief concluded, Second Platoon mounted up and, once communications checks were performed between vehicles got the convoy set and ready to depart well before their scheduled departure time. But instead of being permitted to leave early, Dornbusch, over the radio, informed his unit they were instructed to wait.
Part of the reason for that was the addition of a small infantry detachment that would accompany the convoy for the earliest part of its mission, in order to respond to threats and to provide dismounted personnel for questioning or detaining potential enemies.
"Guess we'll just sit and wait," Thomas said as he settled in behind the wheel of his MRAP."
An hour later, as the rising sun began to vanquish the pre-dawn darkness, the convoy got its go-ahead from the TOC (tactical operations center). Slowly, methodically, crews guided their vehicles out of the front gate and along the bumpy, dusty route that would take them, eventually, back to their own base.
Early on crews managed a steady 5-6 miles-per-hour pace - a good clip considering the dilapidated nature of the road on which they traveled. But soon the driver of the lead vehicle - a mine-hunting Husky - called for an "all stop."
"I've got a pretty solid ping on my left panel," said the driver over the radio to Dornbusch. "Send the Buffalo forward to investigate."
The Husky's mine-detection equipment had sounded a strong alarm that something could be hidden in the ground beneath the road, so before the convoy could proceed any further, the source of the ping would have to be examined. That mean that the convoy's largest MRAP, the hulking Buffalo, would have to use its powerful hydraulic arm to dig through the dirt and rock and see if something dangerous lurked within.
It didn't take long for Dufek, who was operating the Buffalo arm, to report a find.
"Looks like we've got a charge about the size of a paint can, wrapped in plastic," he said over the radio. "We'll move it off to the side for EOD (explosives ordnance disposal) to take care of. We've got what look like thin wires and a pressure plate as well."
After several minutes of examining the site further, Dufek reported that the IED had to have been a set up to detonate when a vehicle rolled over it - hence the pressure plate design - rather than set off by someone who was watching the convoy.
As Dufek and the Buffalo team continued to examine the site, a detachment of U.S. and Afghan National Army soldiers converged on a nearby qalat, or living compound, that appeared to be inhabited by a couple of Afghan families. Three men, two women and several children could be seen moving in and out of the qalat as the soldiers arrived to question them about the IED find.
More than an hour had passed before the convoy was cleared to move forward, but in the meantime, Dornbusch had been informed by the U.S. forces acting in conjunction with the ANA that upon questioning, one man from the nearby qalat said there were "multiple IEDs" along the route ahead of the Big Dogs.
The added that intelligence was reported "as many as eight Taliban operatives" in the area as well, and that the convoy should be on guard for IDF - indirect fire - from small arms, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.
"This just keeps getting better and better," Albers said sardonically.
After the convoy finally began moving again, and within a few hundred yards of the first IED find the lead Husky again reported a heavy "ping."
Once more Dufek's Buffalo crew moved forward and began investigating the site, which was marked by the Husky driver. Within a few minutes' searching, Dufek unearthed another IED - this one HME (homemade explosive) housed in a military ammunition can.
More than three hours had passed since the Big Dogs began their journey, but the convoy had only traveled about six kilometers. They still had more than 85 kilometers to go.
It was going to be a long day. The enemy was making sure of that.
It didn't take long to find the next IED.
Two trucks up from Albers, perhaps 150 yards, a cloud of smoke and dust shot out from the front of Dornbusch's vehicle.
Immediately all trucks in the convoy hit their brakes and, even as everyone wondered how the occupants of Dornbusch's RG had fared, training and experience took over as camera operators and gunners in all vicks (short for vehicles) began scanning their sectors for any signs the IED might have been "command-detonated" - or detonated by an insurgent with a device rather than by a pressure plate.
For a few nervous seconds, as the explosives-and-dust cloud bloomed over the convoy, the radio was eerily silent. Then came Dornbusch's voice: "We're all okay. Our (mine) rollers (a device that is attached to the front of a truck, to keep the explosion away from vehicles) took most of the blast."
A few moments later, as crews immediately to Dornbusch's front and rear moved into position to help protect his vehicle and to begin recovering the damaged rollers, an Apache pilot - one of two who had been orbiting above the convoy - said that he had witnessed the explosion and that someone on a motorcycle was racing away from the convoy at high speed immediately following it.
"We're tracking him - it looks like he went into a village where there are a lot of other people," the pilot said. "We'll see if we can pick him out."
Meanwhile, Dornbusch's driver had begun backing away from the detonation area, weaving towards the middle of the convoy as members of the platoon's wrecker vehicle moved forward to meet him. Once in position Dornbusch and his crew dismounted and assessed the vehicle's damage, as the wrecker crew began unhooking the blown rollers, then preparing to load them onto the rear of the wrecker.
"Not a very big one," Dornbusch observed. "Thank goodness."
As the wrecker team continued its work, the Apache pilot had no luck in locating the suspect he was trying to track, so he couldn't vector U.S. and ANA soldiers into the village to detain and question him.
Then there was another explosion.
In what appeared to be a field about 90 yards off the main route and about 250 yards behind the Big Dogs, another smoke-and-dust cloud shot into the air, catching everyone completely by surprise.
"Where was that?" Albers asked.
"Behind us, off the road," Franka answered quickly, swiveling around in his gun turret to face the potential threat. "What was that - a mortar?"
For the next several moments, anxious crews from throughout the convoy exchanged radio traffic. No one really knew what had happened. But they soon found out.
The detachment of U.S. and ANA infantry soldiers who had been questioning Afghan locals earlier moved quickly to the area and discovered that a pair of AUP - Afghan Uniformed Police - on a motorcycle had struck an anti-tank mine as they sped along a bypass off the main route, killing them instantly.
"Oh, man," said Thomas. "What were they doing on a route we hadn't cleared yet?"
It was a question that was more rhetorical at that point than anything else, for there was no way it was going to be answered.
Mindful that a stopped convoy is a target for IDF, the wrecker crew and other members of the convoy nonetheless continued to move quickly to recover the damaged rollers from Dornbusch's vick, lifting and then securing them with heavy chains. The crews' experience and training showed, as they recovered their busted equipment in about 40 minutes.
With no suspect in custody and little else to do at the scene, Dornbusch - whose truck was still mission-capable - resumed his position in the convoy and ordered it forward, as gunners and camera operators in all vehicles continuously scanned the area for any sign of insurgent activity.
"I would much rather be fishing," Thomas said, to no one in particular, then added: "You know, since I've been here, I haven't seen one rainbow."
For the next several hours both Husky vehicles in the convoy reported several more "pings," each of which took awhile to properly investigate. With the days' events thus far, the convoy was more than willing to spend as much time as needed to make sure the coast was clear.
Eventually, though, the pings became fewer and further apart. That allowed the convoy to make up some lost time, though it still wasn't able to travel quickly. Because of the poor quality of the road, the going was excruciatingly slow - often no faster than a couple of miles per hour.
Every so often Dornbusch would call for a halt, allowing tired, frazzled and dusty crews a few minutes' rest and a chance to get out of their cramped vehicles to stretch their legs and limber up. The breaks were always welcomed, but never long enough.
But with the luxury of being everywhere - and nowhere - at the same time, the enemy is relentless.
As the convoy plodded along, Franka suddenly broke over the intercom. "Hey - that kid at our 9 o'clock - he's shooting video!"
The crew quickly looked to their left and saw three young Afghan boys, one of whom was holding up what looked like a small cell phone, pointing it in the direction of the truck.
"Stop the truck!" said Albers, as Thomas planted his boot on the brakes. From the gunner's turret, Franka yelled to the boys: "Stop!"
As Albers grabbed his weapon and began to exit the MRAP, the boys turned and ran, the one with the phone device tossing it to the ground as he made his escape.
As Franka covered him with his .50 caliber machine gun, Albers checked his immediate surroundings for signs of roadside bombs. He gingerly made his way over to where the phone lay on the ground, checking the area as he walked.
The boys had run a short distance to a nearby qalat. The boy with the phone stood and watched the crew intently. With the phone in hand, Albers made his way back to his truck and instructed Thomas to move out.
"Is it a phone?" Franka asked.
"Yeah," Albers answered.
"Are there any pictures on it?"
"I don't know," said Albers. "We'll turn it over (to military intelligence) and let them look through it."
As the day faded into evening and the hot sun overhead sank lower into the horizon, exhausted crews shifted uncomfortably in their seats and continued their journey in darkness. But with Sharana just a few hours distant, the encroaching darkness gave way to the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.
It had been an eventful day, and while nothing happened that the Big Dogs hadn't experienced before or expected, their mission through "The Wilderness" had not been without loss.
Nevertheless, Second Platoon at least managed to keep its sense of humor.
"Well, we almost found all of them," said Dornbusch over the radio, referring to the IED blast that struck his vehicle earlier in the day.
The nervous laughter aside, it was evident that crews were glad to be back.