EN ROUTE TO COMBAT OUTPOST SHIR GHAZAY, Afghanistan - “Everyone make sure their helmets and seatbelts are on," says Cpt Ryan Bumgardner, 29, of Hood River, Ore., "and the doors are locked.”
Outside, several Marines watch the convoy leave the gate.
“Be sure to tighten those chin straps,” one Marine calls out as the trucks kick up dirt and drive toward the open desert.
The convoy of over 30 trucks and over 100 packs (Marines), including a platoon of Oregon Marines, is headed to Shir Ghazay.
The Oregon Marines from 2nd Platoon of the 6th Engineer Support Battalion (ESB) will perform security for the 9th ESB that will improve up to 10 kilometers of road.
Their destination, Combat Outpost Shir Ghazay, is located just 15 kilometers from Sangin, a current Taliban hotspot. The road leading there has a high possibility of being littered with IEDs.
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For most of the Marines, IEDs rate last place on the list of threats you want to face. Small arms fire is the most favorable option, especially inside heavily armed and armored vehicles.
RPGs come as an undesirable but still second place threat when racked up against IEDs.
For Bumgardner, the open road holds all three threats and other challenges.
“A lot of the focus is on the lack of roads, high IED threats and the vehicles we take, some of the bigger logistical ones aren’t made for this kind of terrain,” says Bumgardner referring to construction equipment. “So I’d say a good ninety percent of the battle is just getting to where we’re going.”
Although the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles and Mine Resistant Ambush Protected All Terrain Vehicles (MATV) are built to withstand explosives, Marines still face the possibility of suffering painful concussions.
Before this day, the 2nd Platoon of Oregon Marines had only encountered one IED blast. Although the men suffered from concussions, no one was critically injured.
The problem about working in a war zone is that at any moment everything can change. After several hours of driving, Marines begin to wonder not if but when they will get hit.
“This is where the fun starts, kids,” says Bumgardner trying to add levity to a stressful situation as they reach the most dangerous portion of road.
These next 21 kilometers hold the highest possibility for an IED find or strike.
Along the way, Marines point at soft, sandy areas, which could be ideal spots for IEDs to be buried. The convoy avoids the main route to Sangin where multiple IEDs have exploded in the last 30 days. The trucks move only five to 10 miles per hour over terrain that rocks the vehicle like a boat on stormy seas. All conversations inside the truck is now focused on the road.
“This is the nerve racking part,” says Bumgardner scanning the sand from behind the view of the windshield. There are lines of rocks, which could indicate an area for the locals to stay clear of, but it’s hard to tell if the Marines are in front of or behind the line.
In the turret, the gunner LCpl Martin Larson, 20, of Portland, Ore., watches as people standing outside return inside as the convoy rolls by.
“I get kind of nervous around compounds where there’s no people around,” says Larson scanning the area for any other suspicious activity.
“We’re doing good, just never been in this area before so its always a little tricky with the high IED threat,” says Bumgardner. “It’s only compounding things, but we’re doing good staying on established routes.”
The convoy tries to follow already made tracks from the small civilian population.
At about 3 p.m., the first vehicle on the convoy passes by a partially exploded yellow jug, a cardboard box, wires and a crater in the sand. The Marines in the truck and Bumgardner discuss the best way to continue on. They decide to go around the right of these objects, which appear to be evidence of a botched IED plant.
“It looked like it had been poorly packed or something along those lines, as an IED,” recalls LCpl Shay Miles, 21, Roseburg, Ore., several hours later at the outpost. He was driving the lead vehicle at the time. “We saw that and changed our direction. We were just extra vigilant after seeing that.”
Within a few minutes of moving directions there is a loud explosion and a cloud of dust.
The first vehicle of the convoy is hit by an IED.
“I hesitated for a moment, like what the hell just happened, just natural instinct,” says Miles.
Inside the truck Cpl Titus Rencher breaks Miles’s daze by telling him to keep driving. “We mobbed out of there about 300 meters as fast as we possibly could,” says Miles.
No one is injured, but the truck has lost a tire and pieces of rubber from the mud flap flew into the turret. Bumgardner estimates that the IED can’t be more than 40 pounds, which classifies it as a soft hit. The gunner has a headache, but the truck is still mobile.
“There was no concussion from it. It was kind of loud, but it definitely wasn’t what I was expecting,” says Miles. “I was expecting more of a concussion and for it to be louder.”
The trucks resume travel, only four kilometers from Combat Outpost Shir Ghazay.
After moving only a few kilometers, a vehicle closer to the middle of the convoy is hit by another 40-pound IED. Bumgardner receives a radio call from the truck: the gunner’s ears are ringing, but no one is injured.
The Marines are on the northeast edge of an IED hotspot. They are two and a half kilometers from the outpost.
Soon the trucks are ready to roll again. The trucks follow civilian tracks that weave in and out of the main road through a compound of small mud buildings.
“I’m not getting a warm and fuzzy feeling from the locals here,” says LCpl Bryan Bush, 21, of Hillsboro, Ore., as Afghans stand in the street watching the convoy drive by.
At 6 p.m. after 10 hours inside the trucks, the convoy stops at Combat Outpost Shir Ghazay. The trucks pull in outside the outpost, as there is not enough room inside to host such a large party of Marines.
As night falls the bulldozer pushes up a berm for security and Marines carry their cots across the sand to set up camp for the night. Headlights glow in the darkness and the sand fogs the air. Oregon Marines only have a month or so left before their deployment is over and then they will make their journey back home to the lakes, rivers, mountains and forests of Oregon.
Until then they will travel farther north to Sangin, they will perform security and do their best to avoid the dangers of road improvements in a war zone.
If the road improvements help win the hearts and minds of the locals and save more military lives then all of this will be worth the effort.
For now the Marines focus on the smaller picture, keeping one another safe and completing the task handed to them.
Cali Bagby is embedded with the Marines in Helmand province, Afghanistan, north of the Pakistani border, as a multimedia journalist for KVAL News.
Bagby is a freelance multimedia journalist who spent 10 months embedded with the Oregon National Guard in Iraq for KVAL.com.