Friday began like any other day for Alpha Company 105th Engineers out of Rockingham. At 6:30 a.m., they stood around a Humvee and were briefed on the day's mission.
"Between here and the road, there is a possibility of an [improvised explosive device]," said Staff Sgt. Tracy Tyson, the convoy's commander for the day's assignment. "A car was found sitting up there at some point last night, and an AK-47 was found. That tells us right there that somebody may have planted something."
No one leaves Forward Operating Base Cobra, the base of operations in this area for the N.C. National Guard's 30th Heavy Separate Brigade, until the 105th has begun checking the main supply routes for explosives.
The job is done every day of the week.
"We like to call ourselves sacrificial lambs," said Tyson, 35. "We go looking for what everybody else is trying to avoid."
The improvised explosives, referred to by guardsmen as IEDs, have become the weapon of choice for those who oppose the United States' presence in Iraq. Since June 17, 59 of the devices have been found in the 30th's area of responsibility in Diayla. Of that number, 25 detonated, causing some damage and injury.
This form of destruction is popular because improvisations make the devices easy to put together, and they can be ignited from distances, giving the insurgents time to escape. They are also inexpensive and can be anything from a can to a trip wire.
"They will go atop one of those hills, and they will wait until we come by," said Tyson, a Marshville resident. "They will time the distance between vehicles and make them detonate on the second or third one. But so far, we have been lucky."
Early Friday morning before the 100-plus-degree heat of the desert day cranked up, the engineers got going. With two M-113 track vehicles mounted with .50-caliber machine guns and two soldiers with M-16s, and a Humvee loaded with a 240 squad assault weapon, the soldiers snaked their way through Cobra's front gate.
Once on the pavement, soldiers in the three vehicles slowly drove the supply routes, looking for anything on the side of the road. They stopped once to clear a bridge, going down its embankment to ensure there were no traps.
The convoy's pace caused traffic to back up behind it like a tractor on a two-lane city road. Along the road, one could see where insurgents had been successful in their quest to strike U.S. forces. At the road's edge, the explosives had blown three holes in the black pavement.
"Sometimes they line them up back to back so that they can get more than one vehicle," Tyson explained.
The rumble of the tracked vehicles drowned out all conversation, creating a sense of tranquility. That calm was broken when two Iraqi men were spotted beside the road.
Spc. Rene Reale's right trigger finger stiffened as the tracked vehicle approached the two men. Reale, a 35-year-old interior designer from Charlotte, gave the men a careful look as the convoy rolled by. He then relaxed his finger slightly, continuing to eye the road for anything out of the ordinary.
The convoy took a detour off road and headed deep into the desert. It had gotten word that a cache of weapons had been found.
"We are given grid coordinates and told to check things out," said Sgt. Jeff Tyler of Rockingham, who manned the .50-caliber machine gun, while several other soldiers checked a mud hut. "Sometimes it's a wild goose chase. About 95 percent of what we do ends up with us finding nothing, but we just keep on clearing the area. Every now and then, we might stumble on something, but we want every mission to be uneventful."
About 11 a.m., the convoy reentered FOB Cobra. The didn't find any explosives, but they did "stumble" across an artillery round and a mortar.
(Staff photographer Ethan Hyman contributed to this report.)
Staff writer Demorris Lee can be reached at 829-8937 or firstname.lastname@example.org.