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17 hours hunting for bombs in Afghanistan

September 30, 2009
Editor's note: The following article appeared in the Sept. 17 New York Daily News and is reprinted with permission. Sgt. 1st Class Michael Garrett, a member of the 10th Mountain Division, is from Milltown.

ALONG ROUTE NEW YORK, Afghanistan — This ultra-dangerous 11-mile stretch of road named for the Big Apple is filled with hidden bombs — and it's the New York-based combat team's job to find them.

The 10th Mountain Division's route clearance squad has found some 30 improvised explosive devices along this dirt road near the town of Baraki Barak — about 100 miles south of Kabul — since it arrived early this year.

Two found them, but no one was killed.

The Daily News spent 17 hours with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team's 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment hunting for the deadly IEDs.

"This is the best part of the job — finding them," said Staff Sgt. Rashad Ross, 30, of Jacksonville, Fla. "If we clear a road and someone comes behind us and they get hit, we take it personal."

U.S. troops rename the roads here — mostly after hometowns, sports teams and bands. An Army unit named this one, but it's fitting for this upstate Fort Drum-based squadron.

"I spend a lot more time preparing for a place like Route New York," said Lt. David Beale, 24, of Cheshire, Conn.

The day began at 5:30 a.m. with a briefing at Forward Operating Base Altimur near the convoy of MRAPs (mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles) and a truck called a Husky that looks like a big tractor with ground-penetrating radar sensors.

It takes more than three hours to reach Route New York because the convoy sweeps for roadside bombs on the way. Once they arrive, the soldiers dismount and begin the painstaking search for tripwires and pressure plates along the roadside.

"One day we found five IEDs, left, came back two days later and found three more," said Spec. Brian Bailey, 36, of Dallas. "They're that fast. They watch us. We're being watched now."

About two hours into the patrol, the team finds its first IED. They secure the area, and the explosive ordnance disposal team detonates the bomb.

"You have to be calm when you're in it," said Air Force Tech Sgt. A.J. LeBeau, 27, of Syracuse. "Otherwise, you make mistakes."

Then, a call comes over the radio as the soldiers take cover: "Fire in the hole!"

The team is alerted of a planned ambush up the road — as many as 70 Taliban fighters. They prepare for a firefight.

"It's bad enough that you're gonna get blown up, then they shoot at us, too," Ross said with a laugh. Humor is a big part of this job.

Two more IEDs are spotted about 2 p.m. — each across the road from the other.

"The thing I worry about is when you dismount and there's a secondary IED," said Spec. Corey Terry, 20, of Baltimore, the team's medic. "But it's not your job to worry about what could happen; it's your job to get over there and help people."

Some of the soldiers hop into the trucks to eat a quick lunch — MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). A little after 4 p.m., they blow up the second and third IEDs, still bracing for an ambush.

Apaches fly overhead as villagers peek outside their homes to watch the massive blasts. One man complains the blast blew out his windows. Holding pieces of broken glass, he asks the soldiers to help him fix it.

"We'll pay for it, but you tell him that it was the Taliban that planted this IED," Sgt. 1st Class Michael Garrett, 32, of Milltown, Ind., tells his interpreter.

The sun sets as a fourth IED is found and detonated.

At 8:20 p.m., everyone piles back into the MRAPs, exhausted and sweaty, for the long ride home.

"Just another day at the office," Ross said as they pack up.

They'll do it all again Wednesday.

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