Route Clearance

Boom! “Oh no, he hit it!” I will never forget this scene from my deployment to Northern Afghanistan in 2011. I was a route clearance platoon leader leading the front of a major operation when my lead vehicle struck an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). I’ll never forget watching the front left fender fly straight into the air and wondering to myself “is it ever going to come back down?” Nearly 30 miles from the nearest base and with night approaching, I knew we were in for quite the misadventure. The hull of our vehicle buried itself several feet into the road, and it took us nearly 12 hours to get it out. On the long ride home, as a result of my utter exhaustion, I remember seeing all sorts of strange things out of my window, the most memorable being a tree turning into a giant Gumby figure that began waving at me.

(Route Clearance vehicle from Zack’s patrol damaged from an IED blast.)

Scenes such as this are and will forever be commonplace in the minds of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. IEDs are the most common and persistent threat over the course of the United States Military’s 16+ year involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. You may wonder to yourself, what can be done to neutralize this terrible foe! Is there anyone so bold to fight back? The answer is a resounding yes from none other than the Route Clearance community, mostly composed of Combat Engineers (Essayons!) and EOD.

As an Army Engineer Officer with a Sapper Tab and many incredible jobs in the military, I’ve had the misfortune of doing route clearance nearly my entire ongoing nine-year military career. Though I feel blessed to have served with such brave subordinates and leaders, men and women who stand steady in the face of IEDs, and I’m proud of all we have collectively done, route clearance is just terrible. Which leads us to where we are now, I writing and you reading this article! I wish to share with you the joys and heartaches with you, and hopefully shed some light on a rather obscure and often misunderstood niche in the Army profession.

(Combat Outpost with mountain view, southern Kunduz Province, Afghanistan.)

Conducting route clearance is rather straightforward. Typically a platoon of around 40 Soldiers loads up in several vehicles designed to take a blast and last, with a few special vehicles designed to detect IEDs under the road, and a few others designed to dig them out or just roll them over. As the platoon leader of such a patrol, if you did your homework, planned the route well, and did good terrain and enemy analysis, you typically can drive to certain threat areas and normal traffic speeds. Once you get to suspected areas though, things slow down, way down. A good patrol switches things up, but once you’re on the hunt for IEDs, you can expect to drop travel speeds anywhere between 1-10 miles per hour, usually on the very low end of that spectrum. Then you drive, and you drive, and you drive some more until several hours have gone by and you start to wonder if there ever was such a thing as IEDs. You carry long and meaningful conversations with your fellow Soldiers in your vehicle. You tell jokes, laugh, sigh, cry, the full spectrum.

You make it back to base without any action. Then you go and do it again the next day. A week goes by, and you put in a solid 100+hours of clearance of hundreds of miles of routes. Then suddenly things change. It starts with one IED, then the next thing you know, you can’t go more than 100 yards without pulling out or blowing up dozens of bombs. After some time you think you have it figured out, but then you start getting shot at, and rockets start sailing by your vehicle’s turret. You only make it halfway through your assigned route after 24 hours, and you decide it’s time to conduct patrol base operations with your vehicles. You remember back to your Sapper School and/or Ranger School days and tell yourself, “my God, I’m actually doing a patrol base in real life!”

If you’re still reading at this point you might be thinking to yourself; this guy has lost it! He’s just typing random thoughts, and we’ve spiraled into outright chaos! While you are partially right, I hope to reassure you a bit and tell you that it was intentional. Route Clearance is more than just words and pictures; it’s a unique experience with indescribable emotions that are more or less synonymous with chaos.

(Route Clearance patrol in northern Kunduz Province, Afghanistan.)

Fortunately, over the years we’ve developed ways to control this chaos, and though I’ve perhaps painted a glum picture of route clearance, it is, in fact, a well-respected, researched and executed mission. Though we could discuss the doctrine as well as the various techniques and procedures used in route clearance, I would simply like to draw attention to what we call “the 5 C’s.” The 5 C’s are more or less the military’s moniker for the process, or tactics, used to defeat an IED, and stands for Confirm, Clear, Call, Cordon, and Control. The following is a quick summary of each:

Confirm The first step of the 5 C’s. If a Soldier suspects an IED, they should act as if it could detonate at any time. Using as few people as possible, troops should confirm if it is an IED by looking for telltale signs such as wire, ordnance, or fleeing personnel.

Clear: If an IED is confirmed, the next step is to clear the area. Everyone within the danger zone should be evacuated. Only explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) personnel may approach the IED.
Call: While the area around an IED is being cleared, a nine-line IED/UXO report should be called in. The report gives the necessary information to assess and prepare an appropriate response.

Cordon: After the area is cleared, Soldiers should establish fighting positions around the area to prevent vehicle and foot traffic from approaching. Assure the area is safe by looking for secondary IEDs. Maximize cover. The entire perimeter of the affected area should be secured and dominated by all available personnel.

Control: Continue to control site to prevent people from straying too close until the IED is cleared. While controlling the site, assure all Soldiers know the contingency plans in case they come under attack.

So there you have it. Now you know what it’s like to do route clearance, and you’ve mastered the bread and butter of our profession, the 5 C’s!

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Zack Willey

Entreprenuer at Army Flashcards
Zack graduated from West Point in 2009 and is currently an Army Engineer Captain. Aside from bleeding Red and White (the color of the Engineers!), Zack is an optimizilliac who loves to see the steady progress of the world around him. He tries to contribute, especially to the military community, by improving forms of education with his company Army Flashcards. Zack is also a loving husband and father of three. At one time, Zack was an avid skydiver, holding the title of “national champion” in multiple collegiate skydiving events. His knees hurt really bad now, so he prefers to watch from the ground.
Zack Willey

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