Oct. 13, 2005: Iraq Column #6

With Georgia’s 648th engineering battalion in the Triangle of Death.

I saw the war in Iraq up close and personal today. In fact, it was up closer than I wanted. A couple of bad guys exploded an IED (an improvised explosive device) as we were crossing a bridge near Camp Striker. Had our vehicle been going slower, or had the bad guys been a little faster on the draw, things might have turned out much differently.

The 648th Engineering Battalion out of Statesboro had invited me to join them as they swept through the notorious Triangle of Death — so called because of the terrorist activity in the area between the cities of Mahmudiayah, Yusifiyah and Lucafiyah — looking for IEDs.

I was in the lead vehicle of our convoy, which included four Humvees with gunners and the Buffalo, an amazing 27-ton armored vehicle that investigates suspected IEDs and sends for a demolition team to destroy the real McCoys. The lead vehicle is most likely to draw fire from the bad guys. The crew said for that reason I might want to choose another spot in the convoy. Of course, hardheaded me wouldn’t listen to them. Next time I will.

We had begun our mission at 8:30 AM. The blast occurred at 8:53. The thinking is that we hit a trip wire. The IED detonated on my side of the Humvee and just behind me. Sparks, smoke and asphalt were everywhere. Viewing the scene upon our return, it was amazing to see how large a crater the bomb had made in the road. Sgt. Eric Farmborough, from Statesboro and the tactical coordinator in our vehicle, said it looked like the equivalent of a couple of 155 mm shells had exploded. All I know is that it lifted up the backend of our Humvee and scared the willies out of me.

Fortunately, I was in the hands of the 648th, who knew exactly what to do and that was to get out of there and leave the bad guys for another day. The 648th is a unique group of people and their work is dangerous. Trust me on that. And they do this stuff every day of the week. They work in teams of five — a driver, a tactical coordinator, two observers — one on the left and one on the right — and a gunner.

Sgt. Christopher Andrews, of Griffin, assigns the teams and decides who goes where. “Keeping the crews together as a team is very important in this kind of operation,” he says. “It teaches them to trust each other and to know what the other crew members are going to do instinctively.” I can vouch for that.

Sgt. Todd Olsen, of Statesboro, who was in charge of the mission, says, “Our job is very dangerous. It is what we do and we have to trust each other in doing it.” Indeed, before today’s explosion, the 27 men in the group had had at least five other similar incidents out of the 20-25 IED’s they have located in the past four months. Their Humvees have been peppered with shrapnel and their crews have suffered a couple of injuries — none life-threatening.

You can sense the camaraderie among the team members. I don’t think someone with tender feelings or a thin skin would last very long in the 648th, with a bunch of Georgia boys who can trash talk with the best. Sgt. Andrews says, “This is a very confident group of people, almost cocky. If you become a part of this group, we’re gonna play with you.”

The driver in my crew was Sgt. James Rackley, of Montezuma, who typifies the brash and cocky attitude of the team. The man tosses one liners faster than Roger Clements chunking fastballs. When I told him during our ride that if I were running things, I would cut down the tall grass along the sides of the road for better security, Rackley responded, “If I were running things, I wouldn’t be here.” Touché!

Sgt. Farmborough had the seat next to Rackley, and along with Staff Sgt. Mahlon Williams, of Statesboro, the back seat observer, they checked the route for convenient places to locate a bomb — paper bags, cardboard boxes, tin cans. It doesn’t take much. You wire it, hide it, get out your hardware store variety garage door opener and — BANG! — you are a bomber.

The most frequent location for new bombs is a crater created by an old bomb. The bad guys evidently figure that the bomb squad will get tired of continuing to look at an old site. Sorry guys, but today we identified more than 70 potential sites. More than 60 were existing craters. The Buffalo found 15 worth a more intensive probe and determined that none were active bombs. It is a very stressful job for these Georgians and they do it day after day. Sgt. Bruce Robinson, who is the gunner and an independent truck driver back in Buena Vista, says he will never again drive the highways in the state without thinking about what might be on the overhead bridges or on the side of the road. Iraq can do that to you.

We covered 31 kilometers in an excruciating five hours. We stopped once for a Humvee to change a flat tire. Flat tires are never fun, but changing one in the Triangle of Death can run your pucker factor up into the stratosphere. We stopped two more times to let helicopter gun ships swoop in and deliver personalized greetings to some terrorists in the area. All of this after having survived a bombing. My cup runneth over.

I won’t define the explosion that rocked us today as a brush with death. That is too dramatic and there is nothing dramatic about war. War is dangerous. Our fellow Georgians in Iraq know that, and I learned it the hard way today. I am glad to be here.