A Minnesota National Guard unit is thrust into the front line of a new and dangerous Afghan strategy.
The Minnesotans who made up the American half of the mission revved their engines, drivers checking their gauges, gunners their weapons. The British half of the convoy was crewed partly by Gurkhas -- Nepalese soldiers with a storied reputation for fearsomeness. The more adventurous of the Minnesotans had joined them earlier in a supper of goat curry. Now, it was time to move.
Indulging their taste for ceremony, British officers had the convoy make a parade circle before heading outside the barbed wire. A lone bagpiper played at the gate as trucks churned past, the notes fading into the rising dust.
The first of its kind and size in the eight-year-old war, the convoy was to cover 150 miles along the Helmand River in one of the most rugged, dangerous provinces of Afghanistan.
More than a straightforward supply mission, the risky drive would be a crucial early test of the military's new strategy of holding a larger network of fixed bases to turn the tide of war at a time when the Taliban is reasserting its influence in the country and U.S. casualties are rising.
For the nearly 200 members of the Minnesota National Guard's 114th Transportation Co., which is based in Duluth but draws its citizen-soldiers from across the state, the emerging shift in strategy has thrust them to the front lines for what may prove to be a pivotal point in the drive to defeat Taliban militants and strike terrorism at its roots.
More than 30,000 additional U.S. troops are bound for Afghanistan this year to join the 68,000 already on the ground. And President Obama warned in his State of the Union address Wednesday that the stepped up fighting could bring some "dark days.''
The troop surge will be felt most in this barren, dusty province, a timeless place that has long bested foreign armies trying to keep to timetables. Roughly the size of Ireland, Helmand is the source of half the planet's opium producing poppies, the crop that provides an estimated $3 billion to the insurgents each year.
Win here, and coalition forces might finally win the war.
Capt. Jeffrey Nilsen, commander of the Minnesota Guard unit, sums up its 12-month mission simply: "Moving things from point A to point B." But in Afghanistan, which seems made for chewing up men and machines, that can be a daunting task. Whether they need fuel or shower heads, the U.S. and coalition bases rising in the desert depend on the 114th to get the goods to them.
The Taliban know that, too. Which makes the 114th a big target.
"We're the ones they want to hit," Nilsen said.9.5 HOURS IN Remembering Cauley
The pace was achingly slow from the start.
Nine and a half hours into the mission, the trucks had covered about 12 miles, the convoy slowed both by the low speed at which mine detection vehicles must travel to remain effective and by sand that often was the consistency of talcum powder.
At 3:15 a.m., under a riot of stars, the convoy pulled out of another British base where it had stopped for a two-hour rest. Despite the hour, Sgt. Pat Rix was at his wise-cracking best.
"I think we're traveling half the speed of the British dental system," he joked. Rix was serving as the gunner on one of the MRAP (mine resistant ambush protected) escort vehicles whose heavy armor and huffing engines leave little doubt that they are the muscle of the mission, dinosaurs on diesel.
Not wanting anyone to miss out on one of his favorite songs, Rix plugged his i-Pod into the MRAP's radio system. Out blared a foul-mouthed satirical homage to country/western music called, "A Lap Dance Is So Much Better When the Stripper is Crying."
A multi-tattooed veteran of the Iraq war who works for the city of Duluth in civilian life, the 37-year-old Rix seems a grab bag of contradictions. A reader of Nietzsche and a devotee of the actor Chuck Norris, he comes across as part Tony Soprano, part professional wrestler.
But Rix and the other members of the 114th knew the danger out in the darkness. They remembered the mission less than two months before, and what happened to Specialist George Cauley.
Told to expect 10 percent of their number to die or be wounded, the 114th had made it halfway through its six-month deployment unscathed until Cauley's truck rolled over a mine in October on a similar supply mission.
Cauley, a 24-year-old Walker resident who enlisted in the Guard at 17 and was on his first overseas deployment, was driving in a convoy on one of the regular runs to an isolated Marine forward operating base, Camp Dwyer. Once a major British base, Dwyer briefly came to the outside world's attention when Prince Harry was stationed there.
The run to Dwyer was the stuff of kidney-bruising legend, all of it off-road, in the desert.
"The run to Dwyer is wild," said Sgt. Nathan Ehrich, who often operated the Bobtail, or recovery vehicle, on the 114th's supply runs. "You could be sore for days."
Cauley's truck was going through a choke point when it crested a hill and struck the pressure plate of a mine.
"We were going pretty slow and there was a loud explosion and a lot of smoke and dust," recalled Staff Sgt. Ashley Kneeskern, who was sitting next to Cauley. "When the smoke cleared ... I looked over. Specialist Cauley was no longer in the truck. After that it was kind of a blur."
Cauley had been wearing his seat belt, but he was still blown out of his vehicle. A piece of side panel smashed in to Kneeskern's leg, making it swell to twice its normal size, but she would recover. Cauley didn't. A medi-vac chopper was on the scene in minutes, but he succumbed to his wounds two days later.
Since that October day, some members of the unit have fallen back on their faith, others on fortune or bravado to help them face what could happen out here, outside the wire.
"I just look at the pictures I have on my bed before I go to sleep,'' said Sgt. Phil Jensen, the last man in the unit to hold Cauley in his arms before the chopper took him away. "Some people have their faith; their religion helps."14 HOURS IN 'That's what they do'
Shortly before 8 a.m., the convoy stopped for a passing goat herd, one of those Afghan sights that remind a visitor how little has changed here over the centuries. At 9 a.m., after six more hours of churning along in a haze of dust and grit, turret gunner Specialist Adam "D" Lish complained: "I've eaten more dirt than a 3-year-old in a sandbox."
Still, so far, so good.
Nilsen, the taciturn U.S. commander, is a project engineer for a Chanhassen thermal materials company. He remained wary of what could lie over the horizon.
With ambush a constant threat, there had been tension between the Americans and the British over which method to use in shepherding the trucks to their goal.
The American practice is to travel in smaller groups as fast as possible, driving in a zig-zag pattern off the "hardball," or paved road, much as naval convoys in World War II zig-zagged at sea to frustrate the aim of submarine commanders. The Brits did things differently, following in the tracks of the trucks that went before, driving much slower. Their reasoning? If the truck in front doesn't blow up, there's probably no mine buried there.
The British method was being used, and Nilsen was still worried about the danger involved in following such a set pattern of travel.
"There is no time (limit) or agenda on their side so they can sit back, watch what we do,'' he said of the Taliban. "They can harass, interdict or slow us down. That's what they do. You always have to keep in the back of your mind, as you are running, they're going to notice that you're running and you've got to change what you do."
The most feared Taliban weapon in the desert chess game is the IED, or improvised explosive device -- the insurgents' weapon of choice, far more than in Iraq. Some come with levels of sophistication that suggest professional manufacture, most likely in Iran or Pakistan. But a majority are surprisingly simple, little more than wood, fertilizer and a pressure plate to trigger the explosion. The coalition answer to these primitive weapons has been increasingly rugged machines -- Humvees, the iconic U.S. vehicle in Iraq, replaced by the steroidal 19-ton-plus MRAPs and anti-mine units pushing what look like farm tractor tills armed with sensitive electronics to clear the path.
"The technology we can take care of, but when it's just something that's a piece of wood buried in the sand, it's a lot harder to find," Nilsen conceded.
Before heading off, Maj. Bill Beaumont, one of the British commanders, emphasized to the Americans that the mission was pivotal to British success in the region. The local Afghans were at a "tipping point," tired of the Taliban's tactics, which include planting IEDs on the few passable roads.
"They're killing and crippling their children as well as our soldiers," Beaumont said.
Getting fresh supplies to the British soldiers in the area would allow them to get out of their operating bases and better push out the nests of insurgents, he said.
Trying to cater to local feelings would entail danger, of course. For example, Afghan translators would announce the convoy's presence at the front of the line and assure anyone who suffered any property damage from its passage that they could seek compensation. Presumably the Taliban would learn that the convoy was coming as well.
Sgt. First Class James Sabyan, commanding half of the U.S. side of the convoy, went over the rules for what is known as "escalation of force" -- when weapons can be fired and what level of response is appropriate. There was an emphasis on firing discipline, a different approach than in Iraq, where civilians often lived in fear of passing military convoys.
"Think positive identification of the threat," Sabyan advised. "Know what you are firing at."
Soon, the question would become who was shooting at them.20 HOURS IN Figures on the horizon
The trucks were drawing closer to Sangin, a town of about 14,000, notorious for being a regional center for the opium trade, and the Taliban. Two British bases that the convoy was out to resupply are not far from Sangin. The plan was that the British troops holed up there could begin moving against the Taliban once they'd been resupplied.
The terrain put the convoy at new risk. Trucks began getting stuck in deep sand. An alternate route promised to get everyone moving again, but would force the trucks through a cemetery, a violation in any culture. Self-preservation trumped respect for the dead. Drivers did their best to take care, but one feared he knocked over a grave marker.
Mud-walled compounds signaled that Sangin was growing closer. Children occasionally ran out of gates to witness the spectacle. A few trees struggled under the wind in the otherwise barren landscape.
Atop the MRAP near the front of the convoy, Rix took over the .50-caliber from Lish shortly after noon. Half an hour later, with the convoy stopped again, the first call of trouble came from Capt. Nilsen in an MRAP in the back of the convoy: He was taking small-arms fire.
Half an hour later, the bomb-detonation crew at the front found an IED in its path. From a distance, the detonation was like the thud of a giant car door slamming shut.
The delays were irritating Rix. Jacked on Rip It energy drink, he felt that the convoy was increasingly vulnerable. Worse, his MRAP was running low on fuel.
Shortly before 2 p.m., Rix spotted movement on the crest of a hill several hundred meters to his right. He quickly swung the .50-caliber machine gun in that direction.
"Small arms fire!" he yelled into the radio.
No one else in the vehicle could hear the insurgents' shots, which danced by without striking the vehicle. Mindful of the danger of civilian casualties from the big .50-caliber, Sabyan, in the passenger seat, told Rix to draw his rifle instead. Figures were moving around a truck a couple hundred meters away. One man crouched, something in his hand. A rocket launcher? A crowd was gathering. Rix watched, but didn't shoot. For 15 long minutes the convoy sat unmoving. Rix's voice on the radio was tense. No funny songs now.
A few minutes later, intelligence picked up chatter that the Taliban had a rocket ambush planned 3 to 5 miles to the south, but the information was being dismissed as misdirection -- a common insurgent tactic. Rix was unmoved. Seeing the crowd, he remembered a Civil War book that described people gathering on hills in anticipation of a battle.
"This whole country runs on Motorola radios," he said as the convoy rolled on. "If something is about to happen, everyone knows about it."30 HOURS IN Rockets, inbound
Sangin was the site of bitter fighting between the Taliban and British troops in 2006 that left much of the town destroyed. Half of its inhabitants had fled. Those who remained were presumed to be on the Taliban's side.
On its way through the town, a British truck in the supply convoy became stuck between power poles, knocking out all the electricity for hours. Chalk up a new reason for the locals to be resentful.
The convoy would travel through Sangin the next morning on the way back from the last British base on its itinerary, Camp Inkerman. At 6:30 a.m., commanders met for a briefing before leaving. British intelligence was picking up information that the convoy was about to be hit.
The sense of foreboding grew as the trucks rolled through the bazaar at Sangin. Usually packed with people in the morning, it was empty.
"You know, usually when we roll through a town those kids are either waving at us or throwing rocks at us," said Specialist Jared Berger, who was in one of the front trucks. "When we rolled through, we didn't see any of that because they knew ... they knew we were going to get hit.'
Traveling at about 5 miles per hour, the convoy had made its way to a point about 3 kilometers east of town shortly after 8 a.m. The sun was shining brightly.
Rix was back in the turret of his MRAP, behind the .50-cal.
ZOOP, ZOOP, ZOOP.
Three rocket-propelled grenades screamed past Rix from behind him on the right. Small arms fire came from in front, on his left. British guns opened return fire. Rix swung the .50 back around, trying to find where the RPGs were coming from. Five more rockets flew over his head. The .50 jammed as he pulled back the charging handle. By then, the shooting had died down to his right. He picked up his personal rifle, an M4 carbine, and scanned for targets.
"I saw a shooter stick up over a wall and got a couple of rounds off at him," Rix said. Then his rifle jammed, too. "Watching through my sight, one (bullet) hit about a foot to my right, the other one hit right where he was and he went down. I don't know whether I got him or it scared him and (he went) back down."
A few trucks ahead, Berger was in the passenger seat, as the truck commander.
"People were saying 'IED! IED!' but it wasn't an IED. We had rocket attack, incoming mortar rounds, we had AK-47s. We saw people running across the hill on the driver's side, they had a spotter in their sights. The British unloaded their weapons. Rix fired off some rounds," Berger said. "As soon as the debris and the smoke cleared, I could see that the truck was OK. We were going, like 5 mph, and everybody was saying, 'Go faster.' But we ended up going the same speed."
It had all lasted less than five minutes.42 HOURS IN Success, exhaustion
One of the tanker trucks had been hit and one of the British security vehicles had minor shrapnel damage from an exploding RPG.
About 40 minutes later, the trucks pulled into British Forward Operating Base Nolay, just outside of Sangin, to rest and await return to their home base. Like most stops on the trip, it was short for a reason.
"The unfortunate thing is when you have only got one route (in or out) in any given location, they know you're coming back," said Sgt. Sabyan.
From Nolay, it would take close to 12 hours to return home. Six more IEDs exploded during the day, all but one either discovered or absorbed by the convoy's mine-detection team. The mission took its first casualty from the IED they missed; a British driver's leg was mauled when the mine exploded near his truck.
Through the day and into the night, truck after truck struggled and then bogged down in deep sand. Finally, the convoy rolled back through the gates, back home. The British were enthusiastic about repeating the mission with the Americans. After all, they had delivered twice the supplies in four days that they normally took seven or eight days to deliver.
The American commander, Capt. Nilsen, wasn't so sure. Everyone had come through safe, but the journey had taken a toll on his trucks, with more than a dozen in need of significant repair, and his men were exhausted. And while none of the RPGs or IEDs deployed against the 114th had drawn blood, everyone knew the next mission could be different.
"I'm not sure we'll be doing that again anytime soon if I have anything to say about it," Nilsen said, adding wryly. "But I don't think I'll have anything to say about it."
There wouldn't be much time for rest and refit.
Word was out already: Marines elsewhere needed a new supply run.
One of the drivers looked at his dashboard: 146 miles in 52 hours of actual running time. An average of 3 mph.
Back at the barracks, Rix reflected on the mission, the gun fight, and the risks and dilemmas of fighting the war.
"I wanted nothing more than just to put the maximum amount (of ammo) down range. At the same time, my training always was, there's just too much collateral damage risk in the area," he said. "We're not here to destroy this country or beat the people down. We're here to surgically remove the bad guys. If we go through blowing up their town, we're not, to use the cliche, going to win their hearts and minds."