Connect to share and comment

Afghanistan's Hurt Locker: Defeat the device

Video: Searching for roadside bombs, a boring and deadly task.

U.S. soldiers of 10th Mountain Division detonate improvised explosive devices (IED) placed on the road near Combat Operation Outpost Conlon in the mountains of Wardak Province, Afghanistan, July 2, 2009. (Shamil Zhumatov/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 — The soldiers in Task Force Thor have one of the most dangerous — and boring — jobs in southern Afghanistan: looking for improvised explosive devices on the roads.

The troops in the unit are a tight bunch. They are like the military’s gypsy caravan, constantly roaming the highways, driving at 7 miles per hour for 10 to 14 hours at a time in an effort to find IEDs. 

“Our mission is to give freedom of movement along the main supply routes, more importantly Highway 1 in our area,” said U.S. Army Capt. Christopher Burkhart, 30, the commander of Task Force Thor’s 630th engineering company, referring to the main highway in southern Afghanistan. “We keep that open from IEDs, so we can get troops and supplies to and from different locations, and help out the local populace by keeping routes open for them.” 

Task Force Thor has specialized equipment to help them find IEDs, the vehicles being the most important part. There are the MRAPS, or Mine Resistance, Ambush Protected vehicles, that provide security, some equipped with anti-mine rollers. Then there are the one-man Huskies, which look like something out of Star Wars. They have metal detectors and a long arm with a camera and remote control claw to inspect suspected bombs. 

The biggest vehicle is the Buffalo. It's the largest vehicle in the U.S. Army. It has a mechanical arm and video cameras that are used to “interrogate,” meaning to inspect, a suspected IED.   

Before any unit from TF Thor leaves a base, they do a mission brief.  

The soldiers gather together, and they talk about where they might get attacked, and what to do if they are. Then, they say a prayer. 

“We are grateful that God has watched over us, and we ask him to guide us ... and to keep us safe,” one soldier said before the night mission. A truck’s headlights illuminated the faces of the unit’s soldiers surrounding him. 

“God watch over all of our brothers in arms in the country, and help them to all get back safely to their families and friends.”

Eleven soldiers from Task Force Thor have been killed in Afghanistan, and 18 wounded, since they arrived in February 2009. Five of those killed were from this platoon of about 25 soldiers — the 3rd platoon, 569 engineering company.  

“It’s taken a toll on all of us,” said Sgt. Jason Kulhawy, who is a vehicle commander of one of the Buffalos and who was anxiously hoping the 10 weeks between him and his return to the U.S. would pass without incident. He’s married with a young child.

“We look at the mission at hand,” he said. “It’s a very dangerous job, but somebody’s got to do it.”

After the prayer, the soldiers strap on body armor and exchange high fives and hugs. Before climbing into the Buffalo, Kulhawy tells his crew what to do if the vehicle flips, or is on fire. It’s not that unlikely of an event: these platoons find a bomb every few days. More often than not, the bombs find these soldiers' trucks first.

They roll out the gate of Forward Operating Base Wilson at 3:30 a.m.  

Riding with Task Force Thor at night is like moving through a moon landscape. The powerful floodlights on the side of each vehicle in the convoy are the only lights for miles. The soldiers are separated from the world like astronauts — a foot of steel and ballistic glass separating them from the outside world. Metal bars surround the vehicle, making it feel like a cage, although they’re there to stop rocket-propelled grenades from penetrating the armor.