The one image from my two embeds that I can’t get out of my head is the soldier taking point with a Vallon.

The first guy who steps off the ramp–of a Stryker or a helicopter. The guy in front when a patrol leaves base and heads outside the wire.

The soldier steps out and unfolds this collapsable metal detector, not much longer than a lacrosse stick, and sweeps the ground for possible IEDS. The soldiers on patrol will fall in behind him.

As 3rd Platoon, Charger Co. soldiers dismount, Spc. Mazzole Singeo, 1st squad, left, starts sweeping the area with a Vallon. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

At first, I didn’t know what happened with the Vallon. I was usually in the middle of the column or the back. A hit would reach me as “stop” or “hold” and we’d take a knee and wait. Then we’d eventually hear “moving” and we’d carry on.

“When I get a hit on the Vallon, I brush the dirt away to expose whatever we hit–sometimes it’s an IED, battery, metal or a piece of a tractor,” said Sgt. Rob Taylor, with 2nd squad, 3rd Platoon. “But you never know. It’s definitely the least enjoyable part of the job.”

Every soldier I spoke with who carries the Vallon said he does it so that another soldier won’t have to. That part sticks with me, too.

“Everytime we go out on patrol, I always take point,” Taylor said. “I take total control for my squad. Everyone in this platoon has done 300 to 350 patrols. In the beginning, at Maktab, it was a hostile area and we did two to five patrols a day for four months.”

Spc. Mazzole Singeo is a team leader for 1st squad, 3rd platoon, Charger Co., and carries a Vallon.

“If a beep goes higher than a seven, I got to interrogate what’s in the dirt,” Singeo said. “Most of the time I pick up batteries. I need to investigate to make sure it’s safe for the guys to come through.

“I just hope for the best,” Singeo said. “I tell myself I’ll come back. So far it’s been working.

“Being a team leader, I have to bring everybody back, my guys back to their families. It gets tough sometimes.”

Spc. Mazzole Singeo clears a path while other Charger Co. soldiers post security. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

On my second embed, I watched as Charger Co. soldiers walked an IED lane. They sweep through the area to test their Vallons before each patrol. I wrote about it in an earlier post,  “Drill, Baby, Drill.”

After his Vallon detects metal, Sgt. Jeremy Gray, 26, from Anchorage, Ak., "interrogates" the ground around the area to probe for a possible IED. Another Charlie Co. soldier posts security. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

After his Vallon detects metal during a drill, Sgt. Jeremy Gray, 26, from Anchorage, Ak., "interrogates" the ground around the area to probe for a possible IED. Another Charlie Co. soldier posts security. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

In the drill and on patrol, if a soldier hits metal and suspects and IED, he goes prone.

“I don’t mean to be rude. To put it blunt, ma’am, it will make your butt hole pucker,” said Sgt. Brody Staman, of the feeling he experiences in the field as he clears the earth around an IED.

“Somebody’s got to do it. And I don’t want my guys to do it,” Staman said. “So as a leader, that’s a responsibility we take.”

Sgt. Brody Staman, 24, from Scotts Bluff, Neb., finishes clearing the dirt around a pressure-plate IED during a drill on Feb. 11, 2012. The Vallon metal detector he uses to search for IEDs is behind him. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

At Sperwan Ghar, 1st Sgt. Westley Bockert created squad competitions to keep training from becoming stale. He created one for the IED training lane.

The U.S. Air Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal airmen planted seven IEDs in the varied terrain of the 100-yard lane. Stf. Sgt. Daniel Willens, 25, from Sacramento, Cali., Tech. Sgt. Mario Kovach, 33, from Pottstown, Penn., and Sr. Airman Corban Stewart, 21, from Millington, Mich., took genuine pleasure in disguising the locations of the IEDS.

The soldiers got 10 poker chips and when the guy with the Vallon or another soldier saw signs of a possible IED, he was supposed to drop the chip.

“If you start throwing down those chips in the beginning, you won’t have any left in the end,” Bockert said.

“If somebody gets hit, you have to casualty evac them,” Bockert said. “Regular patrol. Put the chip down and call the 10-line up.”

The soldiers would have 15 minutes to clear the course and they’d lose a point for every minute they ran over that time.

“No pressure. No pressure, ma’am,” said Pfc. Nicholas Richardson, 20, from Chicago, Il., who’d take point with the Vallon. “It’s what I do for a living.”

Pfc. Nicholas Richardson, 20, from Chicago, Ill., sweeps an IED training lane during a squad competition for Bravo. Co. soldiers at Sperwan Ghar. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

“There’s dislocation in the dust,” Richardson said. “There’s a high metallic signature here. It’s going into the double range.”

Pfc. Nicholas Richardson, 20, takes point sweeping an IED training lane. Pfc. Joseph Rexroat, 20, and Sgt. John Leland, 37, follow his lead. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

“Right now we’re going into a choke point. A metallic hit. Looks like the ground’s been dug up,” said squad leader Sgt. James Morrison, 26, from Alpena, Mich., Morrison was fourth in the line of eight soldiers.

Richardson and most of the soldiers made it through the lane. The last man in the column, Pfc. Rodion Straub, 21, from Sylvania, Oh., stepped on a mock IED.

Bravo Co. soldiers tend to Pfc. Rodion Straub, who triggered a mock IED during a training competition. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

“Get out of here. You’re a memory,” Bockert said to Straub.

After the training run, the EOD airmen and Bockert discuss the soldiers’ mistakes.

“The guys in the back were finding IEDs,” Bockert said. “If you’re in the back and you see this shit, fuckin call it up. ”

1st Sgt. Westley Bockert talks with Pfc. Nicholas Richardson about his performance during an IED training drill. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

As I write this blog, soldiers from the Arctic Wolves have begun returning home. Photos on the brigade Facebook page depict the latest homecoming reunions. Other soldiers are in transit. They’ve left their base and they’re biding their time at Kandahar Airfield before they catch a flight home.

And, there are still soldiers who are going out on patrol. I sent a message to Taylor yesterday as I was writing this blog. I asked him if any of the C Co. soldiers were still going out on patrol.

Sgt. Rob Taylor, from Tampa, Fl., 2nd Squad, 3rd Platoon, C. Co., waits for Afghan National Army soldiers to join the patrol outside Khenjakak. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

“yes. my squad has gone out everyday since you left,” he wrote. “we are going out today again.”

I asked him to message me when they made it back.

“I am back. I look forward to reading the blog,” he wrote later in the day.

It’s got to be tough to be so close to going home and to get up everyday and pick up that Vallon and walk outside the wire. And to walk behind that solider with the Vallon.
The soldiers would tell me it’s their job. Nothing to do but do it. The soldiers will no doubt squirm at my choice of the word “valiant” to describe them.
I don’t choose–or use–my words lightly. I looked up “valiant” before I decided on it.
Val•iant, adjective
1. boldly courageous; brave; stout-hearted: a valiant soldier
2. marked by or showing bravery or valor; heroic
3. worthy; excellent
Origin: 1275-1325 Middle English valia; Anglo French; MiddleFrench vaillant, present participle of valoir: to be of worth.
Both the modern and the original meaning fit.
It fits, guys.