By KEVIN MAURER and MITCH WEISS
The Associated Press
CAMP SHELBY – Staff Sgt. Jason Jones, the kind of soldier who stands ramrod straight even at ease, watched his men talk and joke around as they waited their turn to practice hunting for a buried bomb.
Shaded by towering pines and standing on red clay, the platoon of part-timers soon would be working the shoulders of desert highways, rooting through sand and mounds of garbage for improvised explosive devices, the No. 1 killer of American troops.
“If these guys think they are just in Mississippi, I don’t know if they are taking it that seriously,” said Jones, an Iraq veteran. “If you don’t pay attention here, what happens when you get to Iraq?”
With violence in Iraq at a five-year low, Jones understands why his platoon of combat engineers might not be as worried about their upcoming tour as they might have been.
Once in country though, the National Guardsmen who make up E Company – glassmakers, carpenters and diesel mechanics from the small North Carolina town of Hamlet – will be entrusted with fighting the weapon responsible for nearly half of the 4,245 soldiers killed and nearly two-thirds of the 31,000 troops wounded during the Iraq War.
“There’s not as many suicide bombers, not as many casualties, so a lot of guys think it’s going to be a piece of cake,” Jones said. “That’s not how I look at it. I look at it as being a dangerous place.”
A short time
Unlike regular Army units that train continuously from boot camp through their deployment to a war zone, the guardsmen of E Company get only a few months at Camp Shelby and a few weeks at the Army’s National Training Center in the Mojave Desert to get up to speed on the latest bombs and defusing tricks before heading overseas in April.
Jones and his platoon are members of E Company, the engineer company of the 120th Combined Arms Battalion in the 30th Heavy Brigade. The Associated Press is chronicling the experiences of the company, their families and their town as they train for and serve in Iraq.
Since 2004, when insurgents first started to plant IEDs on the dusty streets of Iraq, roadside bombs have gotten bigger, more sophisticated and more effective. In response, the military has thickened its armor, built special vehicles and employed robots to cut down on causalities.
Veterans say vigilance and intuition still keep soldiers safest, qualities especially critical for the combat engineers whose primary task is daily sweeps of streets and highways for IEDs.
“The threat is such that you only have one chance to make a mistake,” said Jason Campbell, a research analyst in foreign policy at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
Back home in Hamlet, Jones’ wife Ronda knows her husband likes getting the hard missions, so hunting roadside bombs is “right up his alley.” That doesn’t keep her from worrying about the safety and him and his platoon, which is filled with young men without combat experience.
“The people surrounding Jason aren’t going to be as focused as they need to be,” she said. “I just hope once the guys go to California and the training gets more realistic they become more focused.”
As Jones started his first tour in Iraq in 2004, he walked along roadways searching for hidden wires and rode in a Humvee with no doors or armor. Shortly before he left a year later, the increasing use and toll of roadside bombs led the Army to ship quarter-inch steel plates to Iraq that soldiers welded onto their trucks.
“I look back now and say, ‘Wow, that was crazy. I don’t know how we survived,”‘ Jones said. “We were lucky.”
The bombs have gotten nastier, and the defenses against them stouter and more complex.
On a recent morning at Camp Shelby, Sgt. 1st Class Brent Critchfield, a full-time soldier, was teaching Jones’ platoon how to maneuver the Buffalo – a 23-ton armored truck that looks like something from a “Mad Max” movie. Its V-shaped hull is designed to deflect explosions from its crew, who use a pitchfork-like claw attached to a mechanical arm to root bombs out of the dirt.
During a yearlong tour in Iraq that ended in June, Critchfield’s unit found 177 IEDs. Twenty-two exploded while being removed, and no one was killed. The Buffalo’s shatterproof windows and thick armor made some feel invincible, though the protections can be deceiving. Even if shrapnel doesn’t penetrate the troops’ vehicles, the explosions can cause concussions and other brain injuries.
“We had soldiers who wanted to go back out right after they were hit. We had to say no. We have to rest them,” Critchfield said. “The blasts takes a toll on their bodies.”
Pvt. Elijah Mize has that kind of enthusiasm. The 21-year-old jumped at the chance to get behind the Buffalo’s controls, equating digging up bombs with the mechanical arm to driving a car 200 mph.
Mize slowly lowered the arm’s fork into the dirt, poking at the mound and slowly clearing away enough dirt to see the steel gray tube and yellow wire. The arm shook from side to side as Mize hoisted it and a healthy chunk of earth into the air before dropping the bomb the grass with a thunk.
Not bad, but not good enough for Jones. He’d seen better from Mize the day before. “You were a little shaky today,” he said as the private climbed out of the Buffalo.
Mize tried to brush off the comment, but his body language betrayed his own disappointment: he knows he’s still getting the hang of it, and knows the stakes if he makes a careless movement at the controls.
“When I am over there I know what I am coming home to,” Mize said. “My beautiful daughter and girlfriend I am going to spend the rest of my life with.”