On the Road in Iraq with the 118th Field Artillery
Capt. Jeff Schneider
Guardsmen huddle in prayer.
Guardsmen captured this IED detonation on video.
National Guard personnel from right around here are routinely making one long hard ride through a rough neighborhood in Iraq. Georgia's 48th Brigade is wrapping up a year in country, and months more on active duty training for the mission. Our Mike Manhatton is just back from Iraq and a visit with Savannah's 118th Field Artillery.
The 118th started with its usual role in Taji, just north of Baghdad, a potentially dangerous place, supporting troops fighting the insurgency.
"Basically sitting in a firebase, shooting and shooting and shooting," recalled Capt. Jeff Schneider from Atlanta. "Which is our skill set. We're artillerymen. But because of the way we were mobilized, we were able to pick up, fly half way across the country, and pick up a mission without skipping a beat."
Now, "we're doing convoy escorts with supplies for the whole western hemisphere of Iraq," said Sgt. Jeremy Zeigler of Springfield.
But it's no milk run. And for all the high-tech intel and high-caliber firepower, they all wind up putting their faith in a higher power, praying before missions.
At the same time, other soldiers are going over the trucks and truckers they'll escort with a fine-toothed comb. "It's important, because some of these guys might be insurgents or something and want to come in here and try to blow this motor pool up or some sort like that there," said Staff Sgt. Willie Warren.
They're getting ready for constant danger on the road, the infamous improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. This convoy averages about one explosion per day. The soldiers even catch them on camera. They try to catch them before they explode.
"We'll call them the drop-and-prop variety," said Capt. Schneider. "They're one or two rounds, wired together, bundled up, not buried. Just put on the side of the road. So it takes what, ten, 15 minutes to emplace an IED."
"We look for any obvious things on the road," said Sgt. Armando Villegas. "Wood, steel plates, things that just don't belong there on the road, that just look out of place."
The gunners up top have a bird's eye view. "You get a real good view of everything going on around you," said Spc. Richard Vanvolkinburg from Aberdeen, Washington. "My main job is to scan the side of the road and stop traffic on the road."
"This road's military only, so you got to avoid the potholes, make sure you don't hit any landmines or anything," said Savannahian Cpl. Joshua Heaton. "But once you get on some of the bigger roads where there are civilian traffic, you have to avoid the other cars, make sure they stop to let the convoy pass. We have to secure the gas stations, make sure nobody tries to jump in our convoy."
"Just hope that driver does a good job of avoiding potholes and possible IEDs," said Spc. Vanvolkinburg.
They're out there, with sometimes surprising results. Capt. Schneider recalled one incident: "Matter of fact, we got hit by and IED right over there, actually they hit themselves. They were setting the IED, we turned on the road, they got hurried, I believe, blew themselves up, and we found their truck right there."
Hinesville's Staff Sgt. Donald Jones showed us a stuffed animal who survived an attack. "This bear was on the front of one of the vehicles that was hit by an IED, everybody in the vehicle survived, and the bear, so we kept it. Protects the office while we're here."
The bear can't be everywhere, so they take no chances, bundling up in body armor and wedging into cramped vehicles, crammed with more armor, electronics and computer gear with amazing capabilities. Obviously radios and satellite phones, but even text messaging and eyes in the sky via satellites.
The road they travel is a lifeline, from Jordan all the way into western Iraq. Trucks run empty to Jordan, where they'll fill the tankers, reload the trucks with everything people in this part of the world need. And people from Coastal Empire and Low Country are the ones protecting this lifeline, making sure the goods get where they need to go.
"It leads to a lot of excitement," said Capt. Schneider. "Actually, I hate to say it...it's fun, too. Scary sometimes, but it's fun."
So, it's dirty, dangerous and far from home. Why do they do it? The answer might surprise you. They believe in the mission. And they also believe we aren't getting the straight story.
Tomorrow night we'll hear some of the stories you don't hear every day, but the soldiers want to make sure you do, as our special assignment with the National Guard in Iraq continues.