KANDAHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan • The Missouri National Guardsmen had already been briefed on the high threat of the day’s mission. The bullets and explosives were packed. So were the tourniquets and Kevlar armored diapers.
They’d already prayed for protection from wolves among the sheep.
Now it was time for the combat engineers to roll out, to move toward a dusty road to nowhere where they’d previously found two improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, and been shot at. As their convoy rumbled out of base in the early morning, heavy metal music reverberated through the headsets of three seasoned guardsmen riding in one of the armored vehicles.
Feel the power of the warrior, fight, fight, fight, fight.
They rode in the “Great White Buffalo,” a battleship on wheels, complete with a V-shaped hull to repel blasts and a long mechanical arm to dig up homemade bombs.
Spc. Patrick Feldmann, far from his home in Washington, Mo., gripped the steering wheel, and spit tobacco juice into a cup strapped to the front of his Kevlar vest.
Five months into the deployment with 89 other men of the 1138th Engineer Company, he still holds a secret. He hasn’t told his mother and girlfriend exactly what he is doing over here.
He hasn’t told them his group of citizen soldiers has one of the riskiest jobs in Afghanistan.
He hasn’t told them theirs is the task of finding and destroying the insurgents’ favorite and most effective weapons of choice.
He has spared the details.
“It’s easier that way,” said Feldmann, 23, with his signature ear-to-ear grin.
The 1138th normally drills one weekend a month at an armory in Farmington and responds to state emergencies like ice storms, floods and tornadoes.
That was before the 11-year war in Afghanistan and its accompanying war in Iraq.
Now, members of the 1138th troll through Kandahar Province, the birthplace of the Taliban, at a frighteningly slow pace. Their mission is to clear roadways of IEDs so other units and supply convoys can move around the war-torn country.
The company has cleared the way so other troops could safely close three bases, while enabling several infantry missions and the movement of Afghan security forces.
All men, these guardsmen primarily come from the St. Louis region and eastern Missouri. In real life, they are truckers, salesmen, teachers and mechanics.
As America’s longest war has drawn on, they know the slow fatigue of multiple deployments. They know the frustrating juggle of family obligation, civilian jobs and the demands of military life.
Now, they and thousands like them stand on the edge of a troop drawdown vowing to pull most of them out by the end of 2014.
To many Americans it sounds like an exit, and perhaps even a resolution. And yet, for members of the 1138th it feels like an abstraction.
Because even as military leaders move to dismantle bases, bring troops home and train Afghan security forces to replace them, the 1138th is engaged full-bore in its task.
If anything, the guardsmen think a drawdown will make their job busier.
To exit Afghanistan, thousands of troops will have to travel thousands of miles to conduct countless missions. And not much moves without units like the 1138th out front.
“I thought that was going to mean a slow mission tempo,” said Staff Sgt. William Hanke, 27, of St. Charles. “It turns out that it means the exact opposite. It’s actually given us more work for our particular mission.”
While some of them stay within the confines of their base, doing paperwork, coordinating missions, monitoring radios, keeping the company supplied, others are constantly in harm’s way. A memorial of 44 names painted on concrete barriers in the middle of their base speaks to the dangers they face.
Since late August, the 1138th has found 27 IEDs and has been hit by 11. One bomb nearly ripped a vehicle in half.
They say it can be satisfying work.
“Us doing our jobs could have saved who knows how many lives behind us,” said Spc. Jason Dane, 34, who hopes to find work in a Reynolds County mine when he gets home to his wife and three kids in Ellington.
JUST ANOTHER DAY
On the recent mission — with music playing in the Great White Buffalo — they had been warned to keep their eyes peeled. They were headed into a rural area where a Taliban leader and several fighters are believed to hang out.
Those are the kinds of areas where insurgents are known to lay IEDs — more than 14,500 were placed in Afghanistan last year alone.
The bombs are often buried in shallow holes on dusty roads known to be traveled by Americans and Afghan security forces. The explosives are usually packed in jugs and connected to pressure plate triggers made of nothing much more than plastic picnic plates or wood. The cheap but lethal weapons are a stark contrast to the $15 million worth of equipment in the Guard’s convoy.
And the ground-penetrating radar doesn’t pick up everything.
Members of the 1138th are trained to look for the slightest ripple in the soil, or anything that might offer clues to a deadly device.
That tense task — where every moment can produce fatal missteps — is just another day at work for Staff Sgt. Mike Johnson, 37, the Buffalo’s commander. A substitute teacher from Park Hills, he is on his third deployment doing route clearance with the Guard.
“(My wife) really hates what I do, but she is probably my biggest supporter,” Johnson said.
Johnson has two sons. His gunner, Spc. David Dunavant, a diesel mechanic from Cedar Hill, has two daughters.
Even amid the stress of their mission, they engage in an ongoing feud over which is better, the Boy Scouts or the Girl Scouts.
Dunavant waved a small green Girl Scout flag from behind the bulletproof windows as the Buffalo trucked across the barren landscape.
After the convoy turned off pavement, it slowed to a crawl so the guardsmen up front could scan for suspicious wires and containers. Dunavant compared the pace to taking all day to drive to Walmart.
Ahead, they noticed a suspicious line of rocks with a stick in the middle of the road. Perhaps these were the markings of a bomb.
Feldmann steered the Buffalo in close, as the rest of the convoy waited behind.
Johnson, manning a small control box, extended the long mechanical arm and punched the metal spike on the end of it into the packed dirt. He scraped and dug into the roadway.
Dunavant scanned the hilltops for fighters.
Feldmann gnawed on his chew as Bob Marley sang through the headsets.
A DRY MOONSCAPE
The 1138th is stationed at Forward Operating Base Frontenac, just north of Kandahar. Canadians opened the base, which sits near a dam an American company helped build in the 1950s. It’s surrounded by giant baskets of dirt, concrete barriers and concertina wire. A white blimp floats above for surveillance.
Inside the walls, there’s Internet, a gym, a chapel, pool tables and steak and shrimp at the chow hall on Friday nights. People from places such as Kenya, the Philippines and Nepal fill private contracts to clean the base, do the laundry and cook the food.
The area is a brown and dry moonscape, with a horizon lined with steep, jagged mountains. One soldier describes it as a biblical movie set.
Children collect dead bushes in wheelbarrows for fuel. Squat homes are built of mud and sticks. There are traditional water wells with a bucket on a rope.
Most of the residents of the Shah Wali Kot district, which includes the base, are off the grid without any kind of services, said the district’s governor, Obaidullah Popalzai, in an interview.
He said insurgents target schools and other government programs. He hoped coalition forces, including the Missourians, would stay longer to help provide security for the area. He said Afghan security forces aren’t ready.
“When they find an IED, they don’t have enough equipment to get it off the road,” he said.
The Missourians recently saw Afghan soldiers try to dismantle a roadside bomb near Kandahar. The Afghans hovered around the bomb, touched it with their hands and moved it around before it went off in their faces.
One soldier was thrown against a wall and likely died later. Another was torn to pieces. Nothing was left of a third.
“He was there and then he wasn’t,” said Sgt. John Reeves, 44, of Jackson. “I never knew the human body could disappear like that.”
30 PERCENT LUCK
Capt. Jason Davis, company commander of the 1138th, said about 70 percent of success in route clearance should come from skill, good equipment and training. The remaining 30 percent is luck.
“Luck has been in our favor,” said Davis, 32, a property consultant from Wentzville.
In September 2011, the 1138th replaced an Indiana Guard company that wasn’t so fortunate. It lost six of about 100 men — four from one blast, two in an ambush.
“They are just as smart as us,” Indiana Guard Staff Sgt. Kyle Leonard said of insurgents here. “They are not stupid people, that is what we had to respect. We have multimillion-dollar vehicles, and they are still killing us.”
So far, just one of the Missourians has gone home from a combat injury. Sgt. 1st Class Randy Hargis, of Pacific, stepped on a mine while outside his vehicle. The blast shredded his Kevlar diaper, which probably saved his life, Davis said.
Four other guardsmen have gone home for non-combat-related injuries. Back pain is common. The men work in tight battle spaces with heavy armor strapped to their bodies, sometimes for days and nights at a time.
When they are hit, most soldiers survive the blasts. They say it feels like walking away from a bad car wreck.
Spc. Chris Hawkins, 30, a construction worker from Foristell, ran over a bomb in early January while clearing a route to help close a base. The vehicle filled with dust, and his head smacked the ceiling. Once he and the four-person crew realized everyone was OK and their legs were intact, they laughed.
“We were in the lead for so long, we just kind of figured we’d hit one,” he said. “Kudos to the Taliban, because they had that one placed perfectly.”
Several of the men in the company have been hit on multiple occasions.
“I’ve been blown up three times,” said Sgt. Tim Barker, 37, of Troy, who fixes convenience store beverage equipment for his real job. “Twice in Iraq and once here.”
He didn’t boast. He explained the fact like a cook talking about being burned in the kitchen.
Barker, who recently found out he’s going to be a grandfather, downs chocolate throughout the missions and crosses his fingers if it gets dicey.
It’s that one huge IED lurking out there in no man’s land that’s in the back of Lt. Perry Hoffman’s mind — the bad-luck blast that soldiers won’t walk away from.
Hoffman, 39, of Rolla, an intense leader with a lot of gray hair for his age, kept telling his platoon to stay sharp for the recent mission, even though they were experienced.
“We are getting too close to home to be making mistakes now,” he said.
When the Missourians aren’t bracing for an explosion, they hang out in their compound of containerized housing units. It looks and feels like a two-story hotel along a highway, only there are blast walls, and everyone wears green and has a passion for guns and explosives.
Their ages range from 19 to 52. They are grandsons, sons, spouses, fathers and grandfathers.
“I just wanted to do something different,” Pfc. Imaum Weakley, 19, of Sikeston, said of joining the Guard. His gun truck was hit by a bomb early in the deployment. “Growing up, I always wanted to be a leader.”
He was only 8 when the Sept. 11 attacks happened and doesn’t remember watching news footage of the Twin Towers falling over and over again.
Sgt. Jeffrey “Pappe” Stevens, a plumber from Winchester who often stokes a big cigar, is on the other end of the spectrum.
“I still got some fight left in me,” said Stevens, 52, who is on his third deployment.
This time his son, Douglas, 29, of Manchester, has joined him.
“He’s doing a darn good job,” Stevens said. “Ever since the kid was little, it’s what he wanted to do.”
Two brothers, David and Jeff Vaughn, share the same room, rank, platoon, smoking habit and affinity to rile each other.
“I can outshoot him,” said Spc. Jeff Vaughn, 40, who works at a Walmart automotive center in Sikeston.
“On days I feel like letting him,” countered David, 38, a trucker from Cape Girardeau.
Spc. Vikas Singh, 29, originally from India, came to Cape Girardeau to go to school but wound up in the Guard.
“It kind of didn’t work out for me,” said Singh. “I didn’t do good in college.”
Now he works as a lead man on Mississippi River barges. In Afghanistan, he’s a gunner.
Between missions, the men work out, and play basketball, dodgeball and hockey. They hunt each other with Nerf pistols. They rummage through the latest round of care packages. They stay up in the wee hours challenging each other on video games such as “Call of Duty.” The movie “300,” about Spartan warriors, is a favorite.
One solider had a collection of women’s panties sent from home displayed on his wall. Another soldier listened to the recording of his unborn baby’s heartbeat, while others watched their children grow up without them via Skype.
When supply Sgt. Kris Moore, 31, left Missouri, his son could put two or three words together.
“Now he’s speaking in whole sentences and potty trained,” said Moore. “He’s quite the little man now.”
Expecting the worst on the recent mission, a few helicopters and F-16 fighters were requested to defend the convoy. It was sparse terrain, but there were still plenty of places to hide in nearby hilltops.
The crew in the Buffalo — Feldmann, Johnson and Dunavant — cranked up the air conditioning on the bright winter day. They balanced the stress with healthy sarcasm and, of course, music playing through their headsets.
At first they were relieved to see children walking near the desolate roadway. That usually was a safe sign.
Dunavant waved at the children, but few, if any, waved back.
“You should wave,” he said, smiling through the glass. “I am the one with the gun.”
Then they wondered why the few cars in the area were driving on a different, nearby road. Johnson told Dunavant to keep his eyes on a suspicious young man who perhaps had a cellphone and was tipping people off down the road.
“Maybe he’s texting his girlfriend,” Feldmann said.
Dunavant kept his eyes on him until he was out of sight.
The convoy crept on as the road wound its way through more nothingness and the occasional group of earthen homes. A cemetery was strewn with rock-piled graves marked with flags, some that were short, perhaps for children.
They stopped only to pee off the back of the trucks — nobody set foot on the ground — and to check the dirt with the Buffalo’s arm.
“All clear,” Johnson would say after digging into suspicious sections of the road.
He thought the landscape around him was godforsaken.
“It looks like somebody forgot about it,” he said. “There’s no water. There’s no green. It’s ugly.”
But to some, it’s home, and a few people eventually took more than a passing glance at the convoy.
“Hey, we are starting to cause a stir,” Johnson said into his radio.
They were right above the village where they took enemy fire on the previous trip. This time, though, the guardsmen weren’t going that far.
They hit their turnaround point before reaching the village, and with it a hint of safety.
From there, the trip back to base would be over the same soil they’d already passed. A safe return would be a matter of carefully retracing their tracks on the dirt, while making sure no one had since planted new bombs.
Relief of the return is as familiar as the stress of the mission. More times than not, the men blast the Bee Gees’ disco mantra “Staying Alive” just as they enter the base’s front gate.
On this day, they already spent that track earlier in the route. But knowing they still had time to make it to lunch at the chow hall was satisfaction enough.
Feldmann, at the wheel of the Buffalo, was already ordering chicken nuggets in his head.
And he was smiling his ear-to-ear grin.