In late August 2010, the soldiers of the 118th Sapper Company arrived at Forward Operating Base Salerno, Afghanistan. A mere 10 days and four missions later, they took the helm of Route Clearance Package 37. Assigned to clear routes and counter the enemy’s attempts to emplace improvised explosive devices in their area of operations, they had no idea what the next year of their lives would bring.
“Originally, the majority of our missions were escort and route clearance efforts to get combat logistic patrols out to different combat outposts,” said U.S. Army 1st Lt. Ryan J. Becker of Bountiful, Utah, 1st Platoon leader, 118th Sapper Co. “In between those missions we filled in our time with company-level clearing missions to keep the routes safe.”
Keeping busy is what the RCP does, and they do it well. The unit doesn’t look for downtime, instead they turn their attention to the next mission and how they can better do their jobs.
“Our guys spend their time off working on mission essential stuff; stuff that isn’t necessarily route clearance, but is preemptive,” said U.S. Army Sgt. Carter “MacGyver” Raby of Ignacio, Colo., a team leader with 1st Plt., 118th Sapper Co. “Guys do what they have to do, don’t complain and get the job done.”
In January, Task Force Rakkasan transferred authority of FOB Salerno to Task Force Duke. With the regime change came a mission shift for RCP 37.
“When Duke got in and got their feet on the ground, our primary focus became counter-IED efforts,” said Becker. “Some of these routes have been historically targeted by IED’s and (Duke) wants to lock them down and shut down the IED activity.”
The RCP takes several approaches to this mission. Constant patrols in the area help them to establish a presence. They interact with locals, work to educate them on IEDs, and take a grassroots approach to countering the insurgency.
“Our mission set has really been focused on how we can provide the locals with a feeling that we’re not going in there just to harass them,” said U.S. Army Sgt. John “Izzy” Israelsen of Salt Lake City, Utah, a team leader with 1st Plt., 118th Sapper Co. “We’re deployed and we’ve got a job to do, but we want to make it as symbiotic as possible.”
Israelsen attributes the unit’s positive relationship with the locals to the unit’s road patching efforts and unique culvert denial systems.
“They know that a huge blast in the road is caused by insurgent groups, and then they’ll see it gets fixed and they’ll know that the Americans fixed it,” said Israelsen. “It’s nice to know that they can roll over a road and not have their children bouncing around or pop a tire because the Americans are doing their job.”
The road patching efforts are just one way RCP 37 denies the enemy the ability to place IEDs. Historically, insurgents will reuse blast holes, placing IEDs where ones have already blown up. The constant string of explosions wears down the roads and makes them nearly unusable.
The patch, called the “Dizzy” patch, helps to keep Americans safer on the roads while improving them for local drivers.
Culvert denial systems are another way the RCP works to deny the enemy while still working with the local community.
The (aptly named) Salerno Box
“The culvert denial system has, over the last two months, become the primary mission for RCP 37,” said Israelsen.
Culvert denial systems come in several shapes and sizes, all with the same intent: prevent access to culverts which insurgents could use as a hasty hiding place for an IED, without preventing the flow of water for the local community.
“Culvert denial systems deny insurgents access to the culverts, which have been one of the largest terrain features used in anti-coalition attacks,” said Raby. “If we deny their access to culverts, they are forced to put more effort into setting up their IEDs, which gives them a better chance of being spotted by surveillance.”
The systems can be as simple as a rebar grate over the end of a culvert. However the most commonly used and perhaps the most interesting is the Salerno Box.
The Salerno Box is a large steel box, solid on two sides with rebar caging on the other two. It has an open bottom and a solid top. Atop the box sits a concrete lid, with sensors to monitor and prevent tampering.
“We have a local contractor who fabricates the boxes and the lids that go on them,” said Becker. “The box is made in two sizes … and then we attach the sensors.”
The Salerno Boxes help to keep troops safe, put money into the local economy and the locals seem happy about them as well, according to the 118th Sapper Co.
“When we install the Salerno Boxes, we have locals in the trenches with us helping us dig holes,” said Israelsen. “The locals tell us where they want the water to flow to irrigate their crops, so we take the extra time to use our people and equipment to help them. We listen to the locals because they’re why we’re here.”
At a cubic meter in size, the Salerno Box is highly visible to anyone who would pass by, a fitting symbol to mark the impact the RCP is having in their local area.
“You can see the difference,” said Israelsen. “It’s progress that you can see and touch.”
Tragedy strikes 37
Dec. 2, 2010. RCP 37 was tasked to clear a route up to Combat Outpost Sabari. At approximately 9:30 a.m., within eyesight of their halting point, disaster fell upon the unit.
According to U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Joshua “Lewi” Lewis of Duchesne, Utah, a squad leader with 1st Plt., 118th Sapper Co., the team exited their vehicles to search for indicators of IED emplacements. Their platoon sergeant, U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class James E. Thode, discovered an IED command wire during the dismounted patrol. Before the team could react, an IED hidden off the road exploded where Thode was standing, killing him instantly.
“We don’t know exactly what set if off, but he was standing right on top of it and it killed him,” said Lewis.
The team was rocked by the explosion, physically and emotionally.
“It was a really hard loss for us,” said Lewis. “Thode was like a father to us. He would come around every morning and shake your hand with a big smile on his face. He was such a good platoon sergeant.”
As a civilian, Thode was a police officer in Farmington, N.M. A hero at home, Thode was even part of the department’s Special Weapons and Tactics team. As a Soldier, Thode became a commissioned officer after serving six years in the Army Reserves as an enlisted Soldier. Thode resigned his commission in 1999, returning to life as a noncommissioned officer and garnered the love, admiration and respect of his entire team.
“Everyone loved him like a father,” said Lewis. “He taught us so much about being Soldiers … he was such a good leader.”
Shortly before deploying with the unit, Thode was offered a command position with a National Guard military police unit in New Mexico and the option to not deploy with his team. According to Lewis, Thode denied the offer, choosing his team over the tempting police command position, a decision that would unknowingly cost him his life.
“Thode was the ultimate American hero,” said Israelsen. “It’s comforting to know that if he had to fall, he fell in combat with his men. Nobody wants to think of him dying from a heart attack or chasing a drunk driver on the freeway, that’s just the kind of man he was.”
Carrying the torch
Despite the devastating loss of their “platoon daddy,” the RCP continues their missions working with, and not against, the Afghan people.
“Thode set a great precedent in his life,” said Israelsen. “We had to follow in his shadow. Be a soldier, be a representative, and be an ambassador that’s not going to show the world that Americans are ugly. That’s what he wanted.”
The team plans to return home in late June and have made special plans to honor their fallen platoon sergeant.
“When we get home we’re going to get our platoon together along with our families and go to Farmington to meet up with Thode’s wife,” said Lewis. “We’re all going to go out to dinner and drink his beer.”
"Fat Dog Stuck in the Dog Door Stout" is a specialty beer created by Three Rivers Brewery in Farmington, N.M., in honor of Thode.
The beer, according to Bob Beckley, the brewery owner, is a seasonal beer which he plans on brewing every year around the time of Thode’s death.
“He was a classy guy, the kind of guy you’d want to take home to mom,” said Beckley. “We’re going to brew it every year in his memory.”
The beer will serve as a celebration for the team’s return, a remembrance of their fallen comrade and the legacy and impact that the Soldiers of the 118th Sapper Co. have left both at home and abroad.
“I just hope that we can remember him, honor him and be as good of NCOs as we can, following in his footsteps,” said Lewis.
Article by Combined Joint Task Force 101