BAQUBAH, Iraq - The chaplain and the medic noticed it first: a pile of freshly upturned soil at the side of the highway.
The two men were part of a combat engineer patrol searching for roadside bombs, the leading killer of U.S. troops in Iraq. Riding inside a "Buffalo," an armor-plated vehicle with a mechanical boom, they stopped to investigate.
A claw on the boom tore into the dirt and unearthed two artillery shells wired to a blast pack and a cell phone, the components of a remote-controlled bomb known as an IED, or improvised explosive device. Soldiers detained two Iraqi men who had hurried away from the site as the patrol pulled up.
It was a moment of triumph Wednesday for the search team, the product of dogged patrolling of an IED-infested stretch of highway in the Sunni Triangle 20 miles north of Baghdad.
Several times a day, every day, the "Apache Bomb Hunters" of the 467th Engineer Battalion slowly cruise the dust-streaked blacktops, exposing themselves to bombs, snipers and ambushes as they try to keep the roadways clear.
Other patrols speed up and down local highways, giving IED triggermen less time to detonate the bombs.
The engineers move deliberately, scanning the roadside for signs of such things as unusual mounds of dirt, garbage, brush or construction materials.
The patrols intersect prosaic scenes of Iraqi urban life: men waiting in gas lines, boys playing soccer, butchers slaughtering livestock. But virtually every day in Iraq, the commonplace is transformed by the tremendous explosion of a hidden IED.
Even before the first engineer patrol left the concertina wire and blast walls of Forward Operating Base Warhorse on Thursday, an IED triggered after dawn killed a machine-gunner in a truck from the same brigade a few miles to the northeast in the town of Muqdadiya. An insurgent hiding in a ravine used a cell phone to detonate a chain of several bombs made from artillery shells, commanders said.
Later Thursday, a tank driver with the brigade was wounded when a bomb, also fashioned from artillery shells, exploded beneath his Abrams tank near Samarra. An Army explosives expert called in to investigate was killed when a second bomb was set off by remote control. The deaths underscored the urgency felt by the engineers as they scanned the roadsides in brilliant sunlight, trying to maintain their focus for hours.
The attacks have a certain rhythm, and the engineers learn to spot subtle shifts. On Wednesday, medic Sgt. Leslie Johnson noticed that many shops were closed and that few people were on the roads. Normally, the area is bustling, often with young men throwing rocks at passing patrols. "After a while, you learn to sense when things just aren't quite right," Johnson said as he walked the roadway in helmet and flak vest, his finger beside the trigger of his automatic rifle as he protected fellow engineers who had stopped to inspect a culvert.
The differences had made Johnson suspicious, and so the fresh dirt mound drew his attention. The battalion chaplain, Capt. Daniel Bell, had noticed the mound too, especially because the dirt interrupted the lines of new tire marks on the shoulder.
The chaplain had volunteered for the patrol. He said he believed in ministering to his men at times of greatest peril.
The Apache Bomb Hunters, an Army Reserve battalion from Memphis, Tenn., arrived in Iraq five weeks ago, attached to the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division.
A driver on Thursday's patrol, Spc. Daniel Shobe, was scanning both sides of the road as he guided his armored Humvee across the asphalt, his automatic rifle tucked beside his seat. He drove the vehicle in the middle of the highway in order to keep it as far as possible from the roadsides.
Oncoming traffic swerved to the shoulder. Traffic headed in the same direction pulled over and stopped, giving wide berth to the heavily armed patrol.
Shobe was on just his seventh patrol, but he had already learned to control his anxiety. He concentrates on the mission, he said, blocking out thoughts of explosions.
In the Humvee turret, Spc. Daniel Ragan swung his grenade launcher from side to side. He also kept an M240 machine gun within reach. It was his 20th patrol, and he was still trying to shake the sense of dread that sweeps over him before most missions.
"I was real nervous at first, a lot more than now," said Ragan, who like the other engineers wears no special protection beyond the helmets and vests worn by other soldiers. "But I still have that feeling in the back of my mind that something bad could happen any second."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.