"You good to go, sir?" Sergeant First Class Thomas Murphy asked me as he made his way toward the gate just after 10 p.m. "This shouldn't take long. It's only about a mile and a half."
A mile and a half of dense villages and open pomegranate orchards separated us from an improvised explosive device (IED) placed on a road that Lightning Troop's soldiers use almost daily. A couple of hours before, White Platoon had called on the radio that they had found a command wire leading to something buried in the ground. Another platoon had picked up an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team from a bigger base and dropped them off at Checkpoint 8-1. Now Murphy's mission was to get them to the IED so they could blow it up, and then get them safely back to the outpost.
EOD escort is a mission my troops and I did frequently in Iraq, but it never looked like this. Because of Baghdad's large distances and modern road networks, escorting an EOD team consisted mainly of driving around, trying not to get hit by another IED while responding to the first one. But Murphy and his small platoon would have to walk the entire way as they were constrained by narrow alleyways and half-finished dirt paths.
The EOD team threw most of their heavier equipment into a pickup truck belonging to the Afghan National Civil Order Police (ANCOP), and one by one the soldiers picked their way through the razor wire flanking the outpost's gate. We pushed out into the wide main street that runs through the main bazaar of the village of Mirza Mohammed Kalacheh. It took a few minutes to remember how to walk using night-vision goggles, which aren't really goggles at all, but a long monocle that hangs from the front of the combat helmet and covers one eye. By keeping both eyes open, you can see a green, illuminated version of the world, while the uncovered eye allows some depth perception. Walking, driving and especially shooting with night vision are perishable skills; they were once daily practice for me, but now took some getting used to, 20 months after my last night-combat patrol.
The lead scout took a right off the main strip and continued through Kalacheh's narrow rolling alleyways. If the Taliban were looking for us, they might not have been able to see us, but they certainly could hear our position. Despite strict noise and light discipline, the village's dogs were on high alert, bellowing back and forth across the roads, signaling the limit of our advance. At different parts of the village, the strong odor of garbage and sewage gave way to the sweet tang of burning cedar, likely from fires within homes of those who could afford wood. "Smells like we're inside a cigar box," one soldier whispered to another. "Yeah," his buddy answered, "that'd be a nice place to be."
After about 20 minutes of walking, we met up with White Platoon, which had been watching the IED at one end of a large field. First Lieut. Edwin den Harder led the EOD team off into one of the orchards, while Murphy dispersed his troops along a narrow mud wall. Overhead, an unmanned drone buzzed in the night, allowing the commanders at headquarters to watch the patrol's progress. "Well, the ANCOP are on high alert," Murphy's radio operator said, looking through his night vision across the road. I flipped my own monocle down over my face and saw the green vision of two ANCOP policemen sitting cross-legged against the wall. One of them tossed a rock into the street. Murphy sent a soldier over to position the Afghans to scan up and down the road.
About midnight, the temperature dropped, causing the ground and mud wall to feel like sheets of ice. I stuffed my hands, covered only by thin gloves, under my body armor vest, and part of my brain wondered when was the last time I had been this cold. "That's an easy one, stupid," the other half of my brain answered. "The last time you were this cold, you were in the Army."
Murphy whispered updates into his radio and checked on his men, repositioning his machine gunners and keeping his medic close at hand. At about half past midnight, the EOD team leader told Murphy that the charges were set to blow up the IED. "Just waiting on brigade," Murphy said. "Looks like it'll be at the top of the hour." A low groan emanated from every soldier simultaneously as sharp profanity bounced off the wall. In order to minimize civilian casualties, many units only approve controlled detonations right at the top of each hour and warn civilians, after dark, not to venture out in each hour's first five minutes. But the downside is that the troops in the field have to wait, in this case 30 minutes, shivering against the 20°F (-7°C) night until they can complete their mission. "No one's out at 1 o'clock in the morning, anyway," a soldier grumbled.
At five minutes before the hour, the EOD team leader grabbed me and led me down the wall. When I talked to the team before we left the outpost, I told them I used to be a combat engineer, and the team leader asked if I wanted to set off the detonation. The team had placed C-4 explosives next to the IED and ran a detonation cord across the field, which they attached to the initiator with a small length of wire known as a shock tube. I knelt behind the wall and one of the EOD sergeants gave me a quick refresher. "It's been a while," I admitted, but the procedure quickly came back. I took the cylindrical plastic initiator in my left hand and curled my right middle finger through the wire ring at the top.
"O.K., everybody down behind the wall," the team leader said. He nodded at me, yelled, "Fire in the hole!" and gave a quick flick of his wrist in my direction. Push down, quarter twist, pull. A sharp plat snapped the silence and I felt a spark from the bottom of the initiator. A half-second later, I felt the thud of the blast's overpressure in my chest, followed by the kuh kum as the blast wave rolled past us. The sound of the blast echoed off the walls of a nearby ridgeline and rolled off slowly into the night.
After a quick inspection to make sure the IED was destroyed, we started the march home. When we reached the outskirts of the village, the dogs sounded off like an alarm, wailing steadily behind the walls bordering the streets. The lead scout took a different route to throw off anyone who might be watching, so we turned onto the main road sooner than I expected. As I gazed at the empty shops and shuttered houses, I nearly tripped over a speed bump designed to slow traffic. Twenty minutes later, we entered the gate to the outpost. I looked up and saw the sentry in the nearby tower. He scanned back and forth with his rifle, ready to stave off any threats lurking behind us, somewhere in the dark streets of Kalacheh.