An Oct. 29 article incorrectly said that the armored vehicle known as the Buffalo is manufactured in South Africa. It is made in South Carolina. (Published 11/10/2005)
The padded walls and bulletproof glass kept the sound of the world out as the crew of the Buffalo ambled down the highway at a grazing pace, examining litter.
Boxes. Rags. Bags. Dead dogs. The American soldiers riding in the military's newest weapon against roadside bombs scrutinized everything they saw beneath their windows.
"Hey, he says he sees a rag," Staff Sgt. Matthew Dzuricky, 28, of Erie, Pa., called out to his men in the Buffalo, a lumbering South African armored personnel carrier designed to withstand land mines. Against all conventional Baghdad traffic wisdom, the Buffalo headed straight at the rag, a potential roadside bomb.
"I see the rag," Spec. Abe McCann, 29, of Tombstone, Ariz., piped back. "It's clear."
"Rag clear," Dzuricky said through the radio, and the Buffalo moved along.
One of the most dangerous assignments in Iraq is now one of its most critical, as the U.S. military tries to deal with the growing threat of lethal roadside bomb attacks. The number of U.S. troops who have died in the Iraq war hit 2,000 on Tuesday, and more than half of the soldiers killed in the last six months died from improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
Officials said three U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq on Thursday night by such bombs.
Up to 12 times a week, soldiers from Echo Company, Task Force 4-64, patrol the streets of Baghdad trying to locate roadside bombs before they go off, killing or injuring troops. The task force is part of the 4th Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division.
At the center of their mission is the Buffalo, which rides on monster tires and has a steel retractable arm that can poke for potential roadside bombs at a 16-foot distance. Its V-shaped body rides much higher off the ground than a Humvee and is better able to withstand a bomb blast.
"It's not invincible but it's better than the Humvee getting hit," Dzuricky said.
The men who ride the Buffalo are well aware of the dangers of their mission. Among soldiers in Iraq, IEDs are one of the most feared insurgent weapons. Crude or sophisticated, the bombs explode in a deadly spray of shrapnel and fire. Most military convoys race at breakneck speeds down highways where roadside bombs are frequent. They steer around soda cans, craters, boxes, anything that could potentially be a bomb or hide a bomb.
On Wednesday this week, Dzuricky commanded the Buffalo on a patrol of a main north-south thoroughfare through Baghdad. Pfc. Michael Creed, 22, of Masuary, Ohio, drove the 26-ton vehicle. McCann operated the retractable arm, and Sgt. Rayner Lopez, 23, of Miami scouted from the window in the rear of the vehicle.
Up ahead in the convoy, Army Spec. Raul Gutierrez drove the smaller, older brother of the Buffalo, an RG-31 Mine Protected Vehicle.
Soldiers in both vehicles scanned the slowly passing landscape for tires, boxes, anything odd-shaped, out-of-place with telltale wires or antennas emerging from it.
The Buffalo stopped near a dead dog, the decaying corpse attracting flies at side of the highway near Baghdad International Airport. McCann raised the arm of the Buffalo and slowly smashed the corpse with the tip of the arm.
"Nothing there," McCann said.
"Dog clear," Dzuricky repeated through the radio.
Although it is gruesome business, crushing a dog's corpse, insurgents have used bodies of dead animals, and even humans, to hide roadside bombs. The Buffalo rolled on at about 5 miles per hour.
"Box on the right," the voice came through the radio.
The Buffalo moved to the right, to the box. McCann and Lopez scanned it. "Box clear."
"Box clear," Dzuricky told the others in the convoy.
The Buffalo team spends much of its time looking at trash. "See that tire?" Lopez said, pointing out the window. "It has been there for the entire four months we've been doing this."
The men sometimes joke and tease each other inside the Buffalo, but when asked about their mission, they become sober. McCann and Creed have never told their wives what they do.
"It's dangerous being out here, but when you find something, you've cleared that road for somebody else," McCann said. "And it's not that bad. We get to ride in a great truck."
Since Echo Company received its Buffalo and its new mission four months ago, the soldiers have found 24 IEDs, said Capt. Barrett Emenheiser, 28, the company commander. Six of the bombs have gone off, including two in which the Buffalo took a direct hit. The windows and sides of the vehicle were damaged and the tires blew out, but none of the passengers was seriously injured.
Emenheiser, of Lebanon, Pa., said the Buffalo finds one IED an average of every 51/2 missions. According to statistics, finding an IED saves 2.2 lives, he said.
Insurgents know the Buffalo is out there, roaming the streets. Fliers have appeared in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood instructing militants to "kill the Buffalo." When it rolls down the street at 5 to 10 miles per hour, passersby gawk.
"It's essential to keep the roads safe," said Sgt. 1st Class Dennis Brigham, 41, of Fort Riley, Kan. "These roadside bombs kill Iraqi civilians, Iraqi forces and Americans. These insurgents don't care who they blow up. This is our defense."
Brigham said the soldiers who patrol for IEDs accept the danger of their mission. "It needs to be done," he said. "Every day is a good day when we roll in here and everyone is accounted for."
Gutierrez, driving in the RG-31, has firsthand experience with IEDs. He was driving a Humvee on a patrol on Sept. 21 in the Iraqi capital when a roadside bomb tore apart the right side of the vehicle. He recalled seeing smoke and assumed he was dead, "already in the clouds."
Although no one was killed in this particular blast, all five passengers in Gutierrez's vehicles were injured, including the squad leader, Staff Sgt. Ronell Bradley, who lost his legs. Gutierrez had shrapnel wounds to his face, legs and head.
Gutierrez said he was scared the first time he went back out looking for bombs after his Humvee was hit. But when the Buffalo patrol found three IEDs, two of them were detonated without injuries.
"Now I'm not scared," Gutierrez said. "I'm angry. If I'm not going to do this, who is?"