Improvised Explosive Devices, or IED’s are now responsible for 70 % of the US troop fatalities in Afghanistan. One way the US led coalition is trying to combat them is by finding the bombs before they blow up. In part two of our series on IEDs, reporter Ben Gilbert is embedded with Task Force Thor in southern Afghanistan.
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KATY CLARK: As Rod Nordland reported, American forces around Marjah are encountering large numbers of improvised explosive devices. But he also mentioned teams of ordnance disposal experts. Their job is to find the IED’s before they blow up. Correspondent Ben Gilbert was recently embedded with one of those units is southern Afghanistan; it’s called Task Force Thor.
BEN GILBERT: The soldiers from Task Force Thor have one of the most dangerous and boring jobs in southern Afghanistan. They drive up and down the roads at seven miles per hour looking for IED’s. Their massive armored vehicles are equipped with ground penetrating radar, radio jammers and cameras mounted on long mechanical arms. Army Captain Christopher Burkhart is a Company Commander with Task Force Thor. He says his patrols find an IED about every four or five days. In fact, they just found one last night.
CAPTAIN CHRISTOPHER BURKHART: And so it was pretty exciting for these guys to find something before it found us.
GILBERT: And what happens when it finds you?
BURKHART: You get blown up, that’s what you mean. It happens, it happens. We can’t find everything. I wish we could, but sometimes the IED’s find us and usually they’ll blow up some of our equipment, but people usually are just fine.
GILBERT: And sometimes they are not. Eleven soldiers from this battalion have been killed in the past year and the 18 wounded. Burkhart’s company lost one soldier in an IED blast. Thirty-one year old Jeremiah Monroe was killed last September when a 1,600 pound IED exploded beneath the unit’s 80,000 pound vehicle called a buffalo.
BURKHART: It launched the vehicle about 40 feet in the air.
GILBERT: Sergeant Justin Mottoshiski was just 50 yards away from the explosion.
SERGEANT JUSTIN MOTTOSHISKI: And it came down about 20 meters off the road and it landed on its roof. Even in Iraq I’ve never seen an explosion that big. But all the new soldiers were really scared after that because they’re like well sh** if that happens every time we get blown up, we’re all going to die. I was like no, it’s not that bad. I’ve been blown up twice since then. And that’s right where we’re going today. I’ve been blown up in the same spot twice.
GILBERT: Later that night, the Third Platoon of the 569th Engineering Company prepares to go on a route clearing mission on a dangerous stretch of road, Afghanistan’s Highway One. It’s an area where they’ve hit a lot of IED’s. So the Platoon Sergeant talks about where they might get attacked and what to do if that happens. Then, they say a prayer.
MALE VOICE 1: Our most loving and gracious Heavenly Father, we’re very thankful that we can be together this night to take care of one another.
GILBERT: The soldiers climb into the buffalo and other trucks in the convoy and I join them. We roll out of the base at about 3:30 a.m. Riding with Task Force Thor in the dark is like moving through a moon landscape, the powerful floodlights on the vehicles are the only lights for miles. As we drive through the night the soldiers chow down on sweets and guzzle energy drinks. They crack jokes and break into giggles over their radios. The buffalo’s driver is 23-year-old Private Bryan Kelly.
PRIVATE BRYAN KELLY: You laugh so that you don’t go crazy. Just try to keep calm and try to avoid the reality and avoid the scaredness and try to get your job done successfully and in the right manner so nobody gets hurt that doesn’t deserve to, you know?
GILBERT: Then, someone calls out all stop over the radio. The convoy quickly comes to a halt. The buffalo’s commander, Sergeant Jason Kulhawy spotted a tiny piece of wire barely sticking out of the ground. It could be an IED triggering device. He deploys the buffalo’s mechanical arm and pulls at the wire. We’re only a few yards away if something were to explode. A few minutes of examining the wire and it’s nothing. Over the radio an all clear is given and the convoy begins moving again. We drive through the night and into the next morning passing vehicles that have been hit by IEDs. Eight hours later, when we finally arrive at a Canadian military base, Kelly and the other soldiers are relieved.
KELLY: Feels good because they got good food, good gym to work out in. And I’m still alive. It’s always scary going out there when you’re looking for stuff that’s meant to hurt you, but it’s a good feeling when you finally make it. You’re that much closer to going home.
GILBERT: The soldiers head off for food and the gym. Then, they collapse into bed. They’ve been up since around midnight and now it’s 4:00 in the afternoon. They have to get up and do it all over again around midnight tonight. For The World, I’m Ben Gilbert, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.
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