BAGRAM, Afghanistan The first time Spc. Richard Felix ran over an anti-tank mine, he admits he was a little rattled, but for him and his fellow sappers of Company B, 41st Engineer Battalion, 10th Mountain Division, driving through a minefield is just a routine day on the job.
Felix is part of a group of construction equipment operators who are breaking new ground within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the field of area mine clearance. They became the first engineer soldiers in the U.S. Army to field the Scottish-made Aardvark mine-clearing vehicle and the second U.S. engineer unit to use the Danish-made Hydrema mine-clearing vehicle for area clearance operations at Bagram Air Base.
Along with fielding the new equipment, the engineers are helping to build on new Army engineer doctrine, started by Bagrams previous mine-clearing company out of the 82nd Airborne Division, said Company B commander James Handura.
Both types of mine-clearing vehicles use a system of rapidly spinning chain link flails that violently cut into the grounds surface at varying depths. The heavy flails pulverize the surface layer of ground, destroying any shallowly placed anti-personnel mines. Each strike also exerts tons of pressure below the ground surface to detonate anti-tank mines up to 35 inches deep.
With the new machinery, the sappers can locate and destroy mines up to seven times faster than using the traditional boots on the ground method, said Staff Sgt. Alfred Minton, noncommissioned officer in charge of the Hydrema team, which includes three Hydremas.
In addition to speeding up the area-clearing process in Bagram, the new vehicles provide added safety for the engineer operators.
These things are awesome; they definitely give you an added sense of confidence, said Felix, Hydrema operator, referring to the armor-reinforced cabs and blast shields on the front of the vehicles that protect the operator.
Once the Aardvark or Hydremas flails start spinning, the dirt and dust kick up in enormous plumes, engulfing the vehicle and drifting into the air in 100-foot columns. During these times, the operators barely even notice most of the mines they hit, most of which are smaller anti-personnel mines, according to Aardvark team noncommissioned officer-in-charge Sgt. Peter Barkley, who supervises the operation of two Aardvarks.
I dont feel a thing, said Barkley about the mine blasts.]
For Spc. Raymond Berger, who operates a Hydrema, the experience is similar.
The first one kind of caught me off guard, he said about his first experience destroying a mine. But then, after awhile it just sounds like a big rock hitting up against the blast plate.
Felix was quick to add that as confident as he feels, he knows the mine-clearing vehicles are not indestructible, and any careless mistakes could lead to disaster. We still have to make sure were doing things right, he said, or it could be the last thing you do.
Both vehicle teams can cover up to 1,500 meters on a good day, according to Sgt. William Emerson, Co. B operations NCO. The main problem in keeping the vehicles running, he said, is Afghanistans austere conditions.
Maintenance is an everyday affair, agreed Minton.