The Wisconsin Army National Guard's 950th Engineer Clearance Company spent the first part of October at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, preparing for its upcoming deployment to Afghanistan.
The Superior, Wisconsin-based unit will head to Fort Bliss, Texas, in the coming weeks for its final pre-mobilization train-up before heading to Afghanistan to take on a critical mission there - route clearance. In the meantime, the nearly 100-Soldier unit has been at Fort McCoy honing its Soldier skills and prepping for the mission to come.
The unit spent time at Camp Ripley, Minnesota, and Fort McCoy over the past several months training with its route clearance equipment and learning from subject-matter experts on some of the finer, more technical aspects of its route clearance mission. The unit has trained with its mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles, which can be outfitted for different missions. One MRAP, the Husky mine-detection vehicle, has ground penetrating radar and metal detection systems on board that helped it find and mark improvised explosive devices buried in roadways by insurgents.
The unit's heavily armored Buffalo MRAPs have long arms with a fork and cameras to be able to dig around suspected IEDs and other threats. The 950th can also employ unmanned aerial vehicles, robots and handheld detection systems to combat the threat while working closely with explosive ordnance demolition teams to neutralize the bombs and IEDs that would otherwise jeopardize coalition forces and Afghan nationals.
"Looking for bombs seems crazy, but when you do find or neutralize a threat, or even when you take a hit and everybody walks away, you know that you made that road safer for a patrol that is not equipped to take those kinds of strikes, that doesn't have the capability to detect those devices," said Capt. Andrew Redd, the commander of the 950th Engineer Company.
Redd is proud of his unit and its mission and feels like the unit is well-prepared and ready to take on such an important mission.
"The training has been going really well," he said. "The troops are knowledgeable. About half of them have deployed before in a route clearance capacity, so they're familiar with the equipment, and we're training the new guys and really forming the teams that we'll need overseas to have a successful mission."
Their route clearance mission will take on added significance as the U.S. works to reduce the number of U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan from approximately 30,000 now to less than 10,000 by the end of December.
Redd said he thinks route clearance is potentially the most rewarding job in the Army, because every time his unit finds a bomb or an IED, he knows it made a critical difference.
"Every time you find a bomb, it's a potential life - be it American forces, coalition forces, or local nationals, and I always feel great about that at the end of the day, and I'm really excited to get over there with this group of guys," he said.
Sgt. Matthew Justice, a team leader with the 950th, also knows the vital role that secure infrastructure and freedom of movement plays in helping Afghanistan rebuild its economy and a stronger, more stable society.
"You just can't do that without freedom of movement," he said.
Justice has deployed before, but the unit's upcoming deployment marks his first as a team leader. He was very confident in the unit's abilities, readiness and preparation.
"I can honestly say that this unit that I'm with right now is the most well-trained unit that I've ever been with and that I've ever seen," he said. "That comes from that knowledge and experience that we've gained over the last 13 years of a very active role in the U.S. military."
He said the 950th is forming a very tight bond that will serve them well when they get to Afghanistan. The long hours and days coupled with stressful training environments like the ones they faced at Fort McCoy and Camp Ripley have forged friendships and unity among the unit's Soldiers.
"Unit cohesion is critical," Justice said. "If you have even one person within a team or a couple people within a squad that start to feel isolated, it really does hurt morale. It's a slippery slope. It's now when we build those bonds, so when they're tested overseas they're strong."
The unit completes its training at Fort McCoy Oct. 10, before preparing to head to Fort Bliss for more pre-mobilization training. The Wisconsin National Guard is planning a sendoff ceremony at Superior Middle School Oct. 15 at 2 p.m.
The 950th previously deployed to Iraq in 2003 and 2010. The unit's upcoming deployment will be its first to Afghanistan.