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Afghanistan's Hurt Locker: Facing off with IEDs

Inside a unit that defuses improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, which the Taliban is employing with increasingly deadly effect.

U.S. soldiers with Alpha Company, 32nd Infantry Regiment survey the scene after a roadside bomb attack on one of their armored vehicles in the village of Damman in Kunar Province, eastern Afghanistan, Feb. 16, 2009. (Oleg Popov/Reuters)

Editor's note: Afghanistan's Hurt Locker is a three-part series on the U.S. military's efforts to combat increasingly deadly roadside bombs in Afghanistan. It examines the history of IED attacks, follows the work of a unit tasked with locating the bombs and looks at the unintended consequences of the U.S. strategy.

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Tech. Sgt. Anthony Campbell Jr. left his base at Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan to go on an operation with British special forces.

The 35-year-old bomb technician was a member of a United States Air Force Explosives Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit, one of the military’s frontline bomb squads.

It was Dec. 15, and Campbell and three other men on the EOD team were helping the special forces unit to capture a suspected Taliban operative. Campbell’s team was tasked with clearing the path to the village where the operative was located. It was considered likely that the perimeter was mined or booby-trapped so they studied the ground for command wires or buried explosives, and walked slowly.

Campbell and his unit were deployed late last year to serve on the frontlines of a new effort to counter the deadly effects of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, in southern Afghanistan, and to try to stay one step ahead of the Taliban's efforts to use IEDs to cripple the troop surge and break the supply lines for the U.S. and coalition forces.

The members of these bomb disposal units, who every day live in the real life of the Oscar-nominated Iraq War movie “The Hurt Locker,” are on the cutting edge of the U.S. military’s escalation of troops in Afghanistan. The success — or failure — of the surge of 30,000 troops now flowing into Afghanistan will largely depend on whether or not they can stay ahead of the Taliban.

Campbell and his EOD team led the way into the Afghan village where the suspected Taliban operative was hiding. They split into two pairs. The team leader used a metal detector to search for IEDs as Campbell covered him with his weapon. It’s not clear what happened next; the bomb squad may have taken fire, in which case Campbell would have returned fire to protect his team. What is known is that there was an explosion. Campbell had stepped on a pressure plate IED. The technical sergeant was killed instantly, his team leader was seriously wounded. The other two men received less severe wounds.

campbell funeral
From the funeral for Technical Sergeant Anthony Campbell Jr.
(Carrie Cochran/Cincinnati Enquirer)

Campbell was just one of the 275 U.S. and NATO troops killed in IED strikes last year in Afghanistan, where the homemade bombs now cause more than 60 percent of all casualties. So far in 2010, more than 70 percent of those U.S. and coalition troops killed in Afghanistan have been in IED attacks, at a rate of more than one per day, according to

Campbell was a long time Air Force Reservist who had just started duty as a Cincinnati Police Officer two weeks before he was called up for active duty in July 2009, and deployed in the fall. He was originally slated to be stationed at a U.S. base in the United Arab Emirates, but volunteered to spend his tour in the violent southern Afghan province of Kandahar.

“He was really excited about that. He loved it,” said one of Campbell’s best friends, Chris Terrell. Terrell grew up with Campbell in northern Kentucky, and as a fellow serviceman, followed him into EOD school. He said he ribbed Campbell about being deployed to the United Arab Emirates, a place that EOD techs view as a cushy post far from the frontline action.

“Some guys don’t mind going to the U.A.E. But Tony wasn’t that type. He always wanted something more out of life,” the 36-year-old Terrell said, chain smoking Marlboro Lights at his home in a suburban subdivision outside Cincinnati. Terrell said he and Campbell had been best friends since 6th grade.

Campbell left behind three children and a wife in Florence, Kentucky. In a letter to mourners, Campbell’s wife wrote that EOD had become “a passion for Tony, far above what he ever imagined; he wouldn't have changed a thing.”

The U.S. military declined to offer more details on the events that led to Campbell’s death. This version was relayed by Terrell, who was also one of the family friends the Campbells asked to speak for the family after the incident. Terrell is currently an EOD technician with the Kentucky Air National Guard, and will deploy to Afghanistan in January 2011.

At the funeral a few days before Christmas, the Air Force posthumously awarded Campbell the Bronze Star with Valor, the Purple Heart and the Air Force Combat Action Medal.

At Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, his picture would soon join those of other EOD operators killed in the line of duty at the base of Joint Task Force Paladin South, the counter-IED unit Campbell was attached to.

“It brings it back home,” said one of Campbell’s bosses in Kandahar, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Laurie Richter, two days after his death. The experienced EOD officer’s eyes watered and voice trembled.

“You know everybody in the community and so it’s really tight knit.”

Campbell’s unit, Joint Task Force Paladin, had just opened its southern, regional headquarters (thus, Paladin-South) in Kandahar to help collect and centralize information in the battle against IEDs. Their base, which in December consisted of tents surrounded by armored vehicles at Kandahar Airfield, is getting a $2 million facelift, complete with a concrete building to house the unit’s headquarters.