Sunday, August 8, 2010

Afghanistan: ‘Don’t get too close – if he goes up you’ll go with him’

It is one of the army’s most dangerous jobs – finding and defusing IEDs, the homemade bombs that have been used to deadly effect by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Stuart Webb talks to and photographs the men on the frontline

Staff Sergeant Gareth ‘Woody’ Wood does the lonely walk – he alone has to approach the IED, leaving his support crew a safe distance behind. Photograph: Stuart Webb

Guardsman James Stephenson is just 20 years old, but when the soldiers of the 1st Battalion of the Coldstream Guards leave their base in the Babaji area of Helmand, he leads the patrol. Stephenson’s nickname is “Steveo”, but on duty in Afghanistan, everyone calls him “Vallon Man”. The Vallon is the metal detector used to sweep for bombs – and being a Vallon Man is one of the army’s most dangerous jobs.

The last five years have seen a sharp increase in the use of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) in Afghanistan. According to figures leaked last month, the number of IEDs increased from 308 in 2004 to 7,155 last year; a total of 16,000 were planted in those five years, killing at least 7,000 Afghan civilians. These devices have also caused the vast majority of all British and American deaths during the conflict, and are seriously hampering Nato’s operations in the country. Of the IEDs recorded in last month’s figures, 8,582 were found and cleared, but 7,553 exploded. The threat is so high that every patrol must be led by a soldier sweeping with a metal detector. However, the insurgents have started cutting down on the metal they use in the devices, making them harder to detect and more likely to have their desired effect.

In February, Stephenson’s friend Lance Corporal Darren Hicks, from the same battalion, stepped on an IED and was killed while patrolling as a Vallon Man. Five of the battalion’s soldiers have died during this tour and a further six have lost their legs – all victims of IEDs. Stephenson admits to feeling terrified each time he leaves the gates of the patrol base.

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  1. Firstly, I am glad that James is terrified each time he leaves his base. this only keeps him more focused and I would be very surprised if he was the only person who feels that way:

    However, the people in these villages need to start 'speaking up' more and telling our troops where these devices are, not to mention the Taleban and insurgents:

    Whilst they too are now being 'blown up', the (villages) in my opinion, are still not being 'pro active' enough - too many troops are dying or having life changing injuries....not to mention their state of mind

    Whilst I am proud of what the troops have will never be enough compared to
    the heartache our troops and their families
    have to endure...

    Our Country has done our bit, our troops have more than done their bit and I for one, will be glad when they are ALL HOME as this is a neverending scenario.

  2. I have to say I agree with the above. We need enough troops to keep the enemy from infiltrating back. No enemy, no excuse for the locals to not point out IEDs. If the locals don't help us to help them, maybe we need to leave them with the Taliband & the IEDs they deserve.
    Would Vallon's Mine Detector incorporating Ground Penetrating Radar be useful ?
    Would Niitek's Mine Stalker incorporating a ground penetrating radar & Land Tamer all terrain vehicle, be useful?
    Can any one comment what the Vallon is like compared to the Ebinger or 4C?
    Everyone out there, stay lucky !