It is scary to see how easy it is to bury an IED - the improvised explosive devices that are responsible for two-thirds of U.S. fatalities in Afghanistan - and then to cover up all traces of where it is hidden. We got a demonstration on Wednesday.
One of the last jobs for the Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) techs who have been clearing IEDs with 3/1 is, ironically, to plant simulated IEDs so that they can train the incoming disposal teams with the next battalion on how to find them.
Early one morning the EOD team at Safar loaded an armored vehicle with real IED components that they had recovered from Taliban IEDs that they had dug up - minus the actual explosives. They drove out to a strip of land at the base of a small hill and started digging.
An IED consists of a power source - batteries taped together - a length of wire, a pressure plate or some other initiation device, the main explosive charge and blasting caps to start the explosion. In this part of Afghanistan the explosives are usually packed in yellow 20 liter plastic jugs that were originally used for holding vegetable cooking oil.
I watched Gunnery Sergeant Garret Schmidt take a shovel, dig a hole in the dirt, plant two yellow jugs with a pressure plate on top, link them to the wire which ran 15 feet away to the battery pack - and then cover everything up again. The whole operation took a matter of minutes. The dry, dusty soil in this semi-desert environment is easy to dig up and when it is pushed back into the hole it leaves little trace of being disturbed. After Schmidt was done, even though I watched him all the time, after I walked away a short distance and came back I could not be sure of exactly where the main charge and the wire was hidden - everything blended back into the light ocher dust that covers everything here.
The EOD techs buried 7 devices - some on pathways, some on the side of the hill. At one point a soldier from the Afghan National Army who was based nearby and who apparently hadn't been told about the IED simulation exercise came up to where the EOD techs were busily burying their devices. The expression on his face was of tortured incredulity - picture a golf course manager discovering a bunch of men digging up the turf on the 18th green - until he was shown that the jugs contained sand, not explosives, and were part of a training exercise.
As the Marines learn how and where the Taliban plant their IEDs and develop ways to counter them, the Taliban change their procedures to make them more difficult to find. So the Marines develop new countermeasures, which the Taliban then try to circumvent, and so on - a constant game of cat and mouse, but one with potentially deadly consequences. The U.S. military has invested heavily in research in the fight against IEDs, and that has produced a huge array of robots, electronic signaling devices and other remotely-operated countermeasures aimed at discovering and/or neutralizing the bombs. But in many cases the only completely reliable way to clear an area of IEDs - and to be fully confident the area is clear - is to send in human EOD techs.
All the new EOD techs coming in have had extensive training back in the U.S. - but as the techs who are just finishing their seven-month deployment all say that the real learning only begins on the ground - where the margin for error is non-existent. So the Marines make the simulated IED lanes as realistic - and as difficult - as they can. It could be a matter of life and death later on.
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