20 February 2010

The 'Mouth of the Dragon'

In a particularly powerful piece of reporting earlier this week, freelance journalist Michael Yon describes the death of U.S. Army Spc. Adam Ray, 23, in Afghanistan's Helmand Province. Ray was killed, and others injured, while checking culverts for Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Here in the American Midwest, culverts are as common as cows and crops. The pipes crossing under our roads allow water to pass from one ditch, creek, or field to another. "In safe countries," writes Yon, "drivers pay as little attention to culverts as we would to telephone poles."
In the war zone that is Afghanistan, life and limb depend on noticing normally mundane things like culverts. They are a favorite hiding spot for the Taliban to plant bombs intended to kill Americans driving the roads. Hundreds, even thousands of pounds of explosives can be stuffed inside, launching our vehicles into the sky, flipping them over and over, sometimes killing all. And so, in some areas, soldiers on missions must stop dozens of times to check culverts for explosives. Since we do this every day in front of thousands of Afghans, they know our patterns. In addition to planting bombs in culverts, they plant mines and other bombs near culverts, to get men who stop to check.
Every year, my neighborhood's homeowners association has to pay someone to clear the branches and brambles away from our drains and culverts, in order to prevent flooding. That's about all the thought we give them. Think about worrying about every culvert you and your friends drive over every day, or sticking your face into one or a hundred such holes, in order to seek out explosives.

A recent Missouri National Guard news release described the efforts of U.S. veteran Mike Woodgerd, now working as a contractor in Afghanistan, helping to install "Solerno boxes" onto road culverts. "Every time our guys have to dismount and actually look into those culverts, they are staring into the mouth of the dragon," Woodgerd told Army Sgt. Jon E. Dougherty.
The metal devices help prevent emplacement of IEDs, which helps keep soldiers away from the mouth of the dragon. Recently, Woodgerd was working in Khost Province with a route-clearance unit from Missouri. The National Guard-approved news article describes the action:
[Army 1st Lt.] Miller's platoon took just four hours to deploy the first two boxes, an operation that immediately drew the attention--and concern--of local Afghans. Shortly after the combat engineers began working, an elder from a nearby village ventured out alone to check on the commotion. He was met by Miller and by Army Capt. Bryan Sayer, commander of the 1141st [Engineer Company, Missouri Army National Guard].

It seems he was primarily concerned that the devices would impede or cut off the flow of water through the culvert--water that is vital to farming in this arid environment. But the soldier-diplomats quickly assuaged the elder's concerns by explaining that the denial system would hinder insurgents but not hamper the flow of water.

Part of the plan to keep the boxes in place depends on the trust and support of the local people, who need to know they are being put there to help protect them as well as U.S. and NATO forces. Soon after, crowds that had gathered at the periphery began to close in on the American soldiers, the elder's acceptance serving as the icebreaker.
Please click over to Michael Yon's website, and read the rest of his article about Ray. His final, Ernie-Pyle-like paragraph is heartbreaking in its mundanity. It's also something that I wish I could've written, and hope I never have to. Yon works for himself, by the way--you can keep him in business by donating to the cause. We need more eyes on the ground like his.

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