Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Stuart Ramsay in Helmand province
If there is a constant in this phase of the Afghan conflict it is the ever-present danger of roadside bombs.
The improvised explosive devices - or IEDs as the military call them - are everywhere, particularly in Helmand province.
I joined one of the many US Marine patrols looking to keep roads and pathways open.
The Taliban rarely stand and fight any more, but they do lay bombs across the region.
Vehicles with sophisticated electronic blocking devices are preceded by soldiers walking slowly ahead of them with handheld mine sweepers, listening for the tell-tale whine of metal buried beneath the surface.
This is a dangerous job.
The Taliban have been laying deep level mines metres beneath the surface for months.
As they have withdrawn in the face of increased British and American action in Helmand, they have left behind bombs buried in roads, along paths, beneath bridges and built into walls and even trees.
Marine Colonel Bill McCullough, in charge of the Nawa district to the south of Lashkagar, said his men are winning the fight against the IED threat.
"We are finding about 80% of them before they hit us. But that still leaves 20% we don't find and that is a concern," he told me out on patrol.
"But across Helmand as a whole it is 50/50 and that isn't good."
Of course the bomb detection people know what they are doing and are actively looking for the devices.
Where it gets really dangerous is on the foot patrols looking for the Taliban and, perhaps more importantly, assuring the local people that the military presence will be staying to provide security.
I have been on many of these patrols over the past few weeks but one brought me face to face with the real danger these bombs pose.
The platoon I had joined crossed through corn fields and along narrow paths beside villages for about five hours before we emerged near a school and a small bridge.
Following the tracks of the Marines, I crossed the bridge and we disappeared back into the countryside.
A short while later a radio message came through for the sergeant to return to the school.
After half an hour he reappeared, slightly ashen-faced.
"We crossed the bridge but the bomb guys found a pressure plate and battery pack.
"There was a 40lb bomb beneath it. We walked right over it, all three of us," Sgt Jose Tenna said.
I had as well. It didn't explode because I was lucky.
Every soldier on patrol faces this same danger every single time they leave their patrol bases.
They all know it and pray they are not the next one to take a fatal wrong step.