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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Spartan Sappers Secure Area of Operation

By Spc. Jon H. Arguello
22nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

JALALABAD AIRFIELD, Afghanistan, May 8, 2007 — Most people spend the last few moments of their work day cleaning up their desk and organizing their materials in preparation for the next day with one foot out the door. One company of dedicated engineers in Nangarhar Province, however, is working well after its expected punch-out date. The engineers are even exposing themselves to danger in a manner that exemplifies the Army’s values and all the while keeping their composure.

Due to the mission at hand, the soldiers of Alpha Company, 3rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, Task Force Spartan are patrolling and ensuring their new area of operations remains as secure as possible until they are relieved by the paratroopers of the 173rd Brigade Combat Team.

“We are ensuring the enemy isn’t putting (improvised explosive devices) out there for our replacements to get hit with,” said Army Sgt. David Underwood, a native of Charleston, S.C. “If we stop, that gives the enemy the opportunity to emplace IEDs that will pose a danger to the unit coming in. We are all soldiers, and we are fighting the same fight. Just because we’re not in the same unit doesn’t mean I won’t work to protect them.”

These sappers may be within weeks of redeployment but that doesn’t keep them from doing the heavy lifting the area needs to ensure a safe integration for the incoming Paratroopers.

“Every now and then everyone talks about how we are short on time, but the reality is, it’s more of a joke for us right now,” said Army 1st Lt. Tyler Sweat, from Clinton, N.J. “People are like ‘hey we’re close to going home,’ but people know each there is so much to get done and so many things with a potential for people to get hurt. So we are more focused on getting the job done and coming back. And whenever they tell us we can go, we’re gonna go.”

That heavy lifting includes combat patrols, constant interaction with the villagers of Khogyani, an area with a poppy driven economy, and responding to unexploded ordnance. This was the case during one of the engineers’ recent patrols. The unit was completing a mission when they received a report regarding some unexploded ordnance.

“We were on a combat patrol through the villages of Singani and Khanvu,” Sweat recalled. “About halfway through, we got a report that there were munitions in one of the Afghan National Police (ANP) official’s fields. We changed missions and moved to link up with the people who reported the explosives.”

The platoon leader moved to the village containing the reported hazard, met with the individuals who reported the ordnance and then made his way to the suspected location.

“We usually establish a hundred-meter stand-off from civilian traffic and have Afghan National Army (ANA) or Afghan National Police check them,” Sweat said.

On this particular day a car would speed through the cordon and threaten the young platoon leader as well as his squad leader.

“For whatever reason, the vehicle broke the cordon and continued to accelerate,” Sweat said.

As the car approached the inner cordon, the soldiers attempted to get the driver’s attention with lights and hand signals. But the vehicle slowed down only to accelerate once more, at which point the battle-tested soldiers raised their rifles and prepared to engage the vehicle.

“We tried to get their attention,” Sweat said. “When the vehicle didn’t slow down, we raised our weapons to the ready to show intent, but the car still didn’t slow down. At that point I made the call and fired a warning shot.”

The car finally skidded to a stop just over 10 meters from the barrels of the soldiers’ weapons.

Once the car stopped, the driver was questioned by ANA soldiers. The driver said he didn’t see the checkpoint and was released; but the composure of the lieutenant and squad leader who stood beside him averted a possible tragedy.

“The ANA determined the man was confused about what was going on,” said Sweat. “He had a child and two women in the car. It could have been an international incident.”

Although Sweat played off his role in avoiding a bad situation, it seems clear he and his soldiers’ experience came through during the incident. Experience, however, doesn’t explain the tremendous efforts of the engineers so close to the end of their deployment. Every one of these sappers knows exactly why he is still working hard.

“At this point you really don’t want anything to happen,” said Army Sgt. Christopher Egan, squad leader and a native of Flemington, N.J. “We’re here, and we’re committed to what we’re doing. If we stop now we are short changing the mission and the guys who are coming to replace us. Even though it sucks, if we don’t we’re just setting up the 173rd to get hit when they get here, and we’re not going to do that.”

Photo: An Afghan man describes unexploded ordnance to Army 1st Lt. Tyler Sweat, an Alpha Company, 3rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion platoon leader, through an interpreter, May 3, 2007. After responding to the report, the experienced engineers avoided what could have been a tragedy as a vehicle broke the cordon and sped towards the soldiers. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Jon H. Arguello.

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