On convoy through countryside, danger lurks everywhere

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -- Before the S.C. National Guard convoy rolled out, Capt. Joe Bullwinkle reminded his soldiers about firing warning shots at civilian vehicles.

"Remember the three G's: ground, grille, guy," said Bullwinkle of Irmo, prescribing, first, a warning shot into the ground; second, a shot into a vehicle's engine to disable it; and, if all else fails, what to do last -- kill.

Bullwinkle and his troops, all members of the Guard's 218th Brigade Combat Team, were preparing to lead a convoy of a half-dozen vehicles from Kandahar Airfield to Qalat.

The 100-mile trip -- up a two-lane, blacktop road -- would take the soldiers through sections of southern Afghanistan where the Taliban operates.

"You've got to be on your P's and Q's about it all," said Staff Sgt. Pat Moses of Greenville, a Humvee gunner. "You never know."

The convoy's mission was to deliver mail to outlying bases and transport a handful of Afghan army officers and civilians to a base outside of Qalat.

Running a convoy through open country is much different from operating one in a crowded city such as Kabul, which has nearly 2.5 million residents.

In congested urban areas, convoy vehicles are stuck close to each other, snaking their way through traffic.

"Normally, in the cities, everything is congested, so you've got more potential for vehicle-borne IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and suicide bombers walking out in front of you," said Sgt. 1st Class Jason Gregory of Union, a Humvee driver.

However, in rural areas, such as the stretch between the airfield and Qalat, there's no doubt where the convoy would be driving: right down the middle of the road.

The middle of the road offers the troops the best chance of avoiding or surviving roadside bombs and suicide bombers. "You keep standoff (distance from threats) as best you can," Gregory said.

In southern Afghanistan, where U.S. and coalition troops have operated for nearly six years, public education campaigns stress to Afghan civilians that they must yield the right of way to military vehicles.

For the most part, Afghan drivers stick to the rules, parking their cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles and even donkey carts on the road's shoulder until a convoy passes.

If a vehicle doesn't pull off, Humvee drivers will drive at them, eliminating any doubt as to what the civilian driver should do. (Get off the road.)

Should that maneuver fail to get the driver's attention, Humvee gunners may fire warning shots.

The same rules apply to vehicles that a convoy approaches from the rear: Civilians must pull over and stop.

"The biggest threats in rural areas are IED bombs on the roadside, sniper-fire attacks and ambushes," said Greenville's Moses.

The troops can't be trigger-happy, said Bullwinkle, commander of Company B, 1st Battalion, 118th Infantry Regiment. NATO commanders and Afghan government leaders want to avoid civilian casualties.

"It's just being a good neighbor, if that's the right word for it," said Bullwinkle.

Signs, marking the outskirts of small towns along the way to Herat, pop up like Burma Shave roadside ads.

Sangar. Aghajan. Shar-Esafa. Bakirzai.

Also along the road are Afghan police checkpoints, distinguished by the red, green and black national flag flying in front.

The Afghan people seem to welcome the South Carolinians. Adults and children wave at the passing convoy.

The convoy reaches Qalat, where the 2,000-year-old ruins of a castle built by Alexander the Great stand atop the highest hill, without incident, only maneuvering off the road in a couple of places where the highway has washed out during recent rains.

The passengers are delivered to an Afghan army base, outside of town. Meanwhile, the S.C. troops stop next door at Forward Operating Base Apache to rest and eat lunch.

Then, the Guardsmen head back to their base inside the Kandahar Airfield compound.

"It was a good mission," Gregory says afterward. "Everybody got back safely."