The front gate today was quite different from the norm. The US Army 1LT in charge of the Entry Control Point or ECP for short, (remember the Army uses acronyms for everything) was posted on top of the Hesco barriers with a set of binoculars. He was studying the group of Afghan workers that were refusing to come in the gate this morning.
A little background is probably needed to fully appreciate what I’m trying to convey.
The Hesco barriers I mention are big square bags of dirt and rock that stand about 7 feet high. They are made of a burlap covered wire frame that resembles the horse panels you get at the farm and ranch supply. Imagine four of those joined in a square, covered with the burlap to keep the dirt from falling out. Now fill them up with dirt and you have a Hesco barrier. These Hescos are just about impregnable and easy to setup. They are everywhere on the FOB. They are used for barriers, bunkers, walls, just about everything that you want to stop something hot, fast and made of metal. They do a good job.
One of my jobs is to sweep the pedestrian area for hidden drugs and contraband before the Afghans come through to the FOB gate. Every morning the Afghan workers that need access inside the FOB perimeter line up outside and are processed in the gate. They are sent to the gate in small groups by the Afghan contract security that work the outside area of the ECP. When the US soldiers manning the actual gate and biometric scanner direct, the Afghan guards send groups up the walkway for processing and if cleared, entry. The walkway is a zigzag line of concertina wire bordered paths that lead up to the gate.
This morning was noticeably different. The workers were not lined up as usual. In fact, groups were leaving the line and filtering back into the maze of shacks and vehicles just outside the gate. Several hundred workers come in each morning, normally. Today there were significantly less than normal. The tone was troubling. The workers, guards and the US soldiers all felt it or displayed a nervousness that was more than the day to day vigilance we all have to keep.
As I arrived at the gate to make my sweep for drugs, the 1LT stopped me and said he did not want me outside the gate today.
“We have intel of an imminent threat of S-vests. (Suicide Vests). There is a lot of chatter about two bombers in Town.” He meant the town right outside the FOB.
It was clear the locals knew something was up. They always know. There was a group of Afghans standing off to the side on the area, where the shacks and trucks and little camps were, that seemed to be having some type of meeting. They were several hundred yards away but through the 1LT’s binoculars he could see that there was a lot of discussion going on. The group was also all looking in the direction of the Gate. One more thing to make the hairs on the back of the neck crawl a bit. Jack, my canine partner and I took up a position just at the entrance of the gate along with several US soldiers and Afghan guards. Jack played with a rock as I stood watching the line of walking workers. From time to time a speeding motorcycle would make a bee line for the group off in the distance. It would stop and the rider would talk to the group or vice versa. The rider would once again get on the motorcycle and speed back to the line. More talking and a few more workers would decide to not come to work today. I continued watching the area for about an hour. We, the 1LT and I, made sure the workers could see the dog. They don’t know what I search for, or what this 85 pound drooling snarling animal with long shiny teeth will do, and the mere presence of him there seems to keep everyone in line. After most of the workers that were coming in had done so, I pulled off the gate and went to start searching the vehicles in the “soak” lot. The soak lot is where all vehicles coming onto the FOB from the outside have to wait. The reason all vehicles sit in this remote lot is if an explosive is set on one of the trucks, it will go off there before it actually gets inside the FOB, if it is on a timer that is or initiation was already started.
Jack and I started weaving a path in and around the dozens of trucks, cars and vans of all description. They carry everything from fuel to toilet paper. If it is needed on the FOB, it comes in by truck. The trucks here are a sight to see. Being a police officer back in Gonzales, I just shake my head when these rattle traps roll in. I don’t think any of them would pass an inspection back home. Most have some sort of headlight but tail lights are a real luxury. Many have broken windshields and door glass. The tires are mostly bald with the cords showing. Half the time the trucks run (once they get started) for 30 minutes or so just to build enough air pressure for the brakes to release. Gas caps are always just rags stuck in the tank or a plastic bag over the fuel opening held on with tape or string.
Then there are the decorations. Tassels and flags and writings on the side in misspelled English. We call these things “Jingle Trucks” because they also have rows and rows of bells and little hanging metal beads on the bumpers and sides that make a jingle bell sound when they move. The stuff they weld to these trucks is comical.
As we search up and down the rows of vehicles I meet up with another narcotic handler that is here for a short time before he moves on to another FOB and his permanent post. We split up the lot and make short work of the hundred or so trucks waiting to go in. With this area finished we head to the vehicle EPC where two other handlers are working with their explosive detection dogs. As we walk up the line of trucks waiting to be cleared and enter to FOB, the other handler’s dog alerts and pulls him to the spare tire hanging under a waiting flat bed. Looking closely where the dog has indicated we can see a plastic bag shoved into the spare tire holder. He stays with the vehicle and I go to inform the military guys of what we found. I’m told that they, the military, want the truck in front of the one we are on to be searched very carefully. That truck is a fuel truck and had been bumping into the walls on the way in. We searched it and found nothing except it was pretty clear the driver was high on something. That truck was pulled aside. Now the truck we had found drugs on pulls to the front. The driver gets out and goes to the holding area as normal. There he will get padded down by the Afghan guards. One of our bomb dogs starts their search and alerts on the same truck. Now things get hectic. The military personnel are quickly pulling back. I pull our dog teams out and we move to a safe area. The ECP is locked down. I go to inform our kennel master of the alert. The ECP commander calls EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) and they respond within minutes in one of their armored vehicles. Their truck has a “Deceptacon” symbol from the Transformers movie painted on it. The 1LT that was at the front gate is now here and directing the actions at the ECP. Once EOD arrives, they are driving the train. The EOD techs get briefed by our handler who was working the bomb dog when it alerted. While this is going on, two medevac Blackhawks come swooping in and land at the hospital. They flew in low and directly over the ECP. They were in and had landed before they could be informed to stay clear of the ECP area.
With EOD on the scene there was little to do but watch and wait, and from a good distance I might add. While waiting for the report from EOD, I heard the FOB alert system kick in and announce a code that calls all units to do a 100 % accountability report. This is the first time since December that I’ve heard this called. Clearly the FOB commander wanted to know where all his people were. A short time later, the EOD tech declared the ECP all clear. He determined through chemical testing that the spare tire had residue of HME or a Home Made Explosive on it. Now that tire could have driven through it or been stored with it or any number of other ways that tire was in the same place as explosives. None of those ways were good though.
Thankfully, this time no bomb was found, this time. No explosion took place, this time, but enough went on to close the ECP the remainder of that day and all of the next. A few days after this we got the news that two military working dogs had been lost to enemy action at a location close to here in two separate incidents. One of the dogs had visited with his handler just a few days before. Unfortunately several US troops as well as one of the dog handlers were also lost.
Imminent threat here? You bet there is.
Keeping my head down in Afghanistan
I’m Jon Harris and this has been a
Dispatch from Downrange.