Once riddled with trash, Route Irish was a major road for violence and attacks against coalition forces. Now it is a reliable route for service members traveling into Baghdad.
The Rhino shuttles drive on that dependability, as they travel the road several times a day to bring people from Victory Base Complex to the International Zone and back. The Rhino is a 22-passenger bus as big as a trailer home with an up-armored protection.
â€œWe can help them get there, especially with helicopter flights [being less available,]â€ said Spc. Edric Boneham, of Seattle, Wash., a driver for the Rhino crew, which is operated by Headquarters & Support Company, 18th Airborne Corps.
â€œWe operate whether or not the weather is nice. Rain or shine, every day weâ€™re out there, three times a day.â€
Route Irish is not only the most reliable route from Victory to Baghdad, but the most scenic one as well.
The overpasses and bridges along the road are painted in bold, fluorescent colors. They look as if children splashed buckets of paint onto them as canvases. On one bridge, images of people uniting together spread out as far as the overpassâ€™s columns can reach. The roads are clean again. No trash in sight.
An even pavement pushes any road damage caused by explosions away into memory. The guardrails have made their return to the side of the road, and approximately every couple of hundred meters a member of the Iraqi security forces stands guard to make sure violence stays off.
This wasnâ€™t always the scene on that route. â€œOh man, itâ€™s a lot different,â€ he said. â€œOur route status was always black. We always had to take alternate routes.â€
â€œNow, itâ€™s a lot more secure,â€ said Sgt. Roger Francisco, of Passaic, N.J. one of the crew truck commanders. â€œItâ€™s the road most travelled.â€ Francisco would know, since he worked on the Rhino crew three years ago when he was stationed on Camp Victory in 2005.
â€œIt was a little stressful [before] because the route, the way we ran it, wasnâ€™t like we do it now,â€ Francisco said. â€œBefore, weâ€™d run it [once] at various hours. Sometimes, in the morning; sometimes, at crazy hours at night.â€
Back then, insurgents could easily disguise roadside bombs among the trash, as the highway was littered with garbage. Car parts lay on the side like metal carcasses.
â€œThere were no fences. No barriers,â€ Francisco said.
The guardrails had to be taken down since they too disguised improvised explosive devices.
One of the entry control points along the road was also shut down due to constant attacks. Iraqis couldnâ€™t share the road with military convoys in order to safeguard service members from car bombs, which exploded two to three times a week. The road wasnâ€™t cared for, and overpasses were bleak sights that allowed attack opportunities from above.
All of that has changed.
The rhino crew and their passengers donâ€™t have to fear traveling the road anymore.
â€œObviously the Iraqis are taking more charge of their own country, providing more security,â€ Francisco said.
â€œTheyâ€™re stepping up. Theyâ€™re doing better for themselves,â€ he added.
All of that has translated into safer roads both coalition and local civilians can share. Military and Iraqi leaders can meet together for conferences and discuss important matters face-to-face. Soldiers can enjoy Freedom Rest, a three-day getaway located in the IZ, thanks to the Rhino. None of this would have been possible without the security gains.
Some days, there are so many service members requesting travel to Baghdad that the crew will provide extra seating using mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles. Theyâ€™re not as trendy as a giant bus with the picture of a Rhino stamped on the front, but the transportation gets Soldiersâ€™ missions accomplished all the same.
â€œThe most rewarding part is a lot of people show gratitude for being transported back and forth safely,â€ said Sgt. Cory Waldock, crew chief and native of Chisago City, Minn.
By Staff Sgt. Michel Sauret
Multi National Division – Central