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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.

In May 2008 the majority of IEDs were 25 pounds and under. Now, they’ve grown to more than 25 pounds, with 500 to 1,500 pounds being used to destroy the new generation of armored vehicles like MRAPs. The dirt roads in Afghanistan make it possible to install bigger bombs that can be concealed easily. And the few asphalt roads that do exist don’t stop the patient and determined bombers: Several of the huge bombs this year were emplaced by insurgents who tunneled from the side of the road and took days or weeks to build up a big bomb.

“They’re going for bigger charges with bulk explosive, that’s what’s causing all the casualties,” Lee said.

Also, as U.S. and coalition forces have mounted radio and cell phone jammers on vehicles to stop insurgents from using those to detonate trigger devices, insurgents now mainly use a wire that connects the IED to the detonator, called a “command wire.”

And when the blasts from IEDs aren’t deadly, the wounds have changed due to the better armored vehicles and the massive charges needed to destroy them.

Instead of lacerations, the troops who survive massive explosions in heavily armored vehicles suffer more brain injuries, called TBI for Traumatic Brain Injury, and spinal damage.

U.S. Army Pfc. Andrew Jay’s two encounters with IEDs have knocked him out and blew his eardrums. A vehicle gunner who sits in the turret exposed to the blast, Jay’s injuries did not appear serious enough to keep him out of service in Afghanistan. He says the deepest wound is psychological.

“The worst part about getting blown up isn’t getting blown up,” he said. “It’s waiting for the next time, because you have all that paranoia.”

It’s not any safer outside the vehicles. The bomb makers and emplacers have been using “Victim Operated” pressure plate IEDs (VOIED) against both vehicles and troops patrolling on foot. Sometimes the devices are rigged as secondary devices to target troops after an initial explosion or ambush draws them out of vehicles and into a “kill zone.”

The pressure plate operated IEDs have had another gruesome result: More Afghan civilians are killed than coalition troops in RC-South, said Lee. The devices don’t discriminate, and when an unarmored Afghan bus or truck goes over it, the results are devastating.

“You see horrible results when a Toyota Cruiser goes into a 400-pound charge,” he said.

When troops using metal detectors began to find the pressure plates because the bomb trigger used big pieces of metal like saw blades as electrical contacts, insurgents turned to smaller metal filaments on pieces of wood or plastic.

To try to stop IEDs from being emplaced, ISAF has committed additional resources toward attacking the networks of people who fund, make, emplace and detonate IEDs. Lee said from caches his troops have found, there is evidence of some kind of “production system.”

“It’s localized distribution,” he said. “The production is almost at cottage industry level, where they make 10 and put 10 out.”

In order to target the networks, the Pentagon is now deploying six-man “counter-IED teams” to every battalion command in a new “Operation Tidal Sun.”

U.S. Army Capt. Jackson Salter was one of the first to be deployed in the new offensive. Soldiers joke that his work is like the TV Show, “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” because of the police-type evidence collection and forensics techniques he employs.

The point of the counter-IED teams is to get “left of the boom,” which means focusing on “everything that happens before an IED is emplaced and goes off,” said Salter. “The counter-IED team’s role is the first line of defense in [terms of] targeting the emplacers and manufacturers of IEDs.”