Staff Sgt. Natalie Hedrick
FOB ECHO, Iraq – It was late. While most of the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, at Forward Operating Base Echo were in bed the evening of Jan 2, Soldiers from "E" Company, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, were preparing for another day of work.
It was 1st Platoon's day to go out. After receiving their mission brief, the engineers made their way to the motor pool where their chariots awaited. Soldiers quickly prepped their Caiman armored vehicles, their Buffalo mine protected clearance vehicle, and their Husky engineering vehicle. They had a long night ahead of them.
"I can't believe the Army is paying me to do this," Pvt. Evanan Elias said as he jumped down from the back of his vehicle. "I love being an engineer."
When it was just about time to leave, the protective gear was put on and the last of the cigarettes were put out. Drivers, gunners, truck commanders, medics, and mechanics made their way to their assigned seats.
Their mission this deployment sounds simple enough - to provide freedom of movement for friendly forces throughout the "Dragon," or operational environment. Yet, the details in gaining "mission complete" status, in reality are anything but easy.
"We are the first line of defense for everyone who travels in this [operational environment]," said Sgt. Eric McFarland, truck commander for the Buffalo that day. "It's pretty rewarding knowing that our job is finding [improvised explosive devices] so no one gets hit."
Although most of the Soldiers agree their job is gratifying, there are difficulties they endure before, during and after each mission.
Spc. Sean Bryant is a mechanic assigned to 1st Platoon. Although he is not an engineer by trade, he travels with them on every mission.
"I had to learn the engineering equipment," he said. "It's difficult sometimes because I have to stay up all night to work to keep their vehicles on the road."
McFarland, although proud of his work as an engineer, admits there is always a tinge of anxiety when he rolls out the gate.
"Even though we are the ones that clear the roads, we never really know when we might get attacked or something might go off," he said.
Pvt. Jocue Valencia, who drove the Buffalo that night, appreciates the hardships he goes through.
"After hearing the stories from Sgt. Mac [McFarland] about last deployment, I really can't complain," he said. "I wasn't expecting this coming into the Army."
One thing that many engineers from 1st Platoon said keeps them motivated is that they are not going through anything alone.
The chatter overflowed from each truck in the convoy. Games such as "name your top five hottest celebrities" or "name your top three best movies of all time" bounced from truck to truck via radio. Each engineer with something to say made sure to include everyone in their conversation, regardless of which vehicle they were riding.
"It's like when we're out on the road, everyone starts flappin' their gums and gets their frustrations out," Bryant explained. "But when we get back, everyone's copacetic. We joke around with each other out there but no one gets [their feelings] hurt."
"We are pretty tight in the platoon," added Staff Sgt. Vincent Oliver from over the radio. "There are no real 'cliques' and everyone gets along."
"Except for the medic; he's an attachment," Oliver's driver jokingly added with the platoon medic sitting directly behind him.
Six hours and countless wise-cracks later, the convoy pulled back into the gates of FOB Echo.
"Every time we come back through the gates and no one got hurt," Valencia said, "now, that's the most rewarding part of this job."
Soldiers ran down the list of what they were going to do after they parked and closed down their vehicles. Some were tired and couldn't wait to get back to their rooms. Others were going to the gym. Others were meeting for breakfast as soon as it opened.
Most Soldiers on FOB Echo were still sleeping. The mission of clearing another route in the Dragon Operation Environment was complete - until the next day.
Pfc. Anthony Pascarella, 1st Platoon,"E" Company, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, wipes down one of the headlights of his vehicle before a route clearance mission, Jan. 2, at Forward Operating Base Echo, Iraq.
Spc. Karlon Heileman, 1st Platoon,"E" Company, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, prepares a radio before a route clearance mission, Jan. 2, at Forward Operating Base Echo, Iraq.
Soldiers from 1st Platoon, "E" Company, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, are briefed before a route clearance mission, Jan. 2, at Forward Operating Base Echo, Iraq.
Spc. Joseph Jones, 1st Platoon,"E" Company, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, prepares a radio before a route clearance mission, Jan. 2, at Forward Operating Base Echo, Iraq.