Wednesday, August 26, 2009
By Noah Shachtman from Wired
The robot was back in the armored truck, and the truck was parked across the canal. That meant US Gunnery Sgt. Tony Lindsey had to get right up close to the pair of improvised bombs, and try to get rid of the things by hand.
This isn’t the way he is supposed to operate. During the Iraq war, the military gave explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) technicians like Lindsey a heap of new gear to help them dispose of jury-rigged bombs in relative safety. Forget the “pull the red wire” cliché. These newly-outfitted bomb squads drove up to the hazard zone in hard-shelled, blast-deflecting vehicles. Radio frequency jammers blocked the signals that remotely detonated the explosives. Bomb-handling robots picked the weapons apart, while the EOD teams stayed inside their heavily-armored trucks.
But the improvised explosive device (IED) fight has shifted here in Helmand province — the epicenter of America’s renewed war in Afghanistan. Unlike Iraq, there aren’t many paved roads for the robots and the armored vehicles to roll down. And it’s so hot, EOD technicians like Lindsey don’t even bother wearing the heavy protective suits that are supposed to give them some semblance of protection. Besides, the bombs here are so big and so deadly, the suits wouldn’t help much, if everything went bad.
Which left Lindsey staring at two steel pipes, each 15 inches long, six inches wide, and packed with homemade explosives. Spark plugs, motorcycle gears and ball bearings provided the improvised shrapnel.
Lindsey says he wasn’t any more nervous than usual when he goes out on a bomb disposal call. But he knew he was taking an extra risk. “Any time we gotta leave the truck, the threat is stepped up. Ordinarily, we sit inside the truck so if something blows up, we’ll be alright,” he tells me.
The bombs were sitting off the side of a dirt road bisected by a canal, a few hundred meters south of an outpost from Echo company of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines. Lindsey and his partner, Staff Sgt. Andrew Toothman, did manage to get rid of the IEDs — detonating them in place with explosives of their own.
Which meant there were only two more bombs to go. A few hundred meters to the west, near a canal winding through a tree-lined corn field, an Echo company Marine had noticed a wire poking out of the dirt. He brushed it away with his hand, and saw a metal tube — another IED. A second was next to it. Most of his squad had walked right by them both.
Taliban militants have been trying all sorts of trickery to keep their bombs from being seen. They’ve used pressure-triggered IEDs, tied together with wood and rubber, to avoid being picked up by metal detectors. They’ve buried bombs underground, or placed them near small footpaths and berms, where they can blend in with the foliage.
Some of the bombs have been huge: 40- or 50-pound-jugs filled with homemade explosives. That’s enough to rip a Humvee in half — or send a soldier with the Afghan National Army flying dozens of feet in the air. Which makes Toothman and Lindsey’s inability to use their robots and their bomb-resistant trucks even more frustrating. They’ve had to trudge through mud, and swim through a goat-dung-filled canal just to handle the deadly threats.
Lindsey and Toothman blew up the second pair of IEDs – sending a chest-thumping shockwave more than a hundred meters away. Then they walked back, got inside their armored vehicle, a drove about a kilometer back to their base.