Afghanistan's Hurt Locker: Defeat the device

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.

As they drive through the dark, the soldiers munch on Pop Tarts and trail mix, swig energy drinks and rock out on iPods channeled lightly through their headsets. In the truck, and occasionally over the radio, they crack jokes and break into teenager-ish giggles. The Buffalo’s driver, Pfc. Bryan Kelly, 23, says he’ll talk and joke about anything for hours — music, marriage, movie stars, his kids — to keep himself and his crew awake.  

“You laugh so you don’t go crazy,” he said.  “You try to keep calm, avoid the anger, the scaredness, and try to get your job done so nobody gets hurt who doesn’t deserve to.”

The soldiers seem to not even be looking out the window, until suddenly someone calls out “all stop” over the radio. The convoy comes to an immediate halt.  The work begins. 

Somehow, Kulhawy spotted a tiny piece of wire barely sticking out of the ground in the dirt next to the road. It could be an IED triggering device. He deploys the arm on the buffalo and pulls at it. We’re only a few meters away if something were to explode. He examines the wire. It’s nothing. Over the radio, an “all clear” is given, and the convoy begins moving again. They drive through the night, and into day.  

Along the way they pass the twisted and mangled hulls of blown up vehicles rusting on the side of the road — victims of previous IED attacks.  

This area is where Task Force Thor lost one of their men. 

In September, the Taliban used a 1,600-pound bomb to target the 633rd Engineering Company’s Buffalo. Pfc. Jeremiah Monroe, 31, was killed.

Sgt. Justin Mottoshiski, 26, was just 50 meters away from the explosion. He says the blast blew the Buffalo 40 feet into the air. It landed on its roof, where the escape hatches are located.

“When it came down on top of Monroe, there was no way to survive that,” he said. 

Mottoshiski was one of the first people on the scene. There was no way to open the hatches to save the men severely injured but still alive inside the vehicle.

Most of the injured men were either knocked out or had broken backs. But one of the surviving soldiers was still awake, and able to crawl to the back exit and open the rear door. Otherwise, the crew probably wouldn’t have survived.

Mottoshiski said it was the biggest explosion he’s ever seen. He and the rest of his unit were horrified the U.S. Army’s strongest vehicle could be damaged so severely. 

“All the new soldiers were really scared after that, because they were like, if that’s what happens every time we get blown up, then we’re all gonna die,” he said. 

“I said no, it’s not that bad. We’ve been blown up twice since then, right where we’re going today.”

Mottoshiski says those IEDs he’s survived aren’t “really all that bad.”

“It’s an adrenaline rush, when you get hit. As long as, as long as you don’t get knocked out, and you ride it out, it’s actually a pretty neat ride,” he said, then laughed at the seeming absurdity of his comments. Then, he added, “To to do this job you have to be an adrenaline junky.”

“Not any normal person can get on the road and drive for 15 hours per day and look for things that can blow you up and possibly kill you.”

Still, the men and women of this battalion feel the wear and tear. They are human minesweepers. And because they drive so slowly, they are a moving target. They get hit all the time by ambushes, small arms fire and, of course, IEDs. And the more blasts they survive the more damage to their ears, brains and backs that occur. 

“You start to feel it after a while,” Mottoshiski said. “Migranes. Headaches. I really can’t hear too well out of my left ear. And all the gear we wear, when we get blown up, it messes you up:  messes up your back.”

As the route clearance patrol comes into Kandahar, people along the side of the road stare.  Some children wave. At one point, rocks are thrown from a crowd of men in what appears to be a refugee camp.

When they arrive to their destination, a Canadian base, the soldiers are relieved. 

“It feels good cause I got good food, a good gym to work out in, and I’m still alive,” said the Buffalo’s driver, Kelly. “It’s always scary going out there looking for stuff that’s meant to hurt you, but it’s a good feeling when you finally make it, and you’re that much closer to going home.”

The soldiers head off for food, and the gym. Then, they collapse into bed. They’ve been up since midnight, and it is 4 p.m. now. They have to get up and do it all over again later tonight. 

Afghanistan's Hurt Locker: The series

Attack the network: Blowback from clearing Highway One

Facing off against IEDs: An increasingly deadly battle

Editor's note: This story was updated to make several clarifications, including the fact that Task Force Thor is a battalion.