Hide and Seek

                After having spent the first two months of our deployment operating in and around Delaram, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines and its attached combat engineers passed off their responsibilities in the area to the Georgian Army, and moved to a place where they could finally hit the Taliban where they lived.

We were in the Sangin District of Helmand Province, an area held by British forces.  And now, in July of 2010, 3/7 was there to take it back over and clear it of Taliban fighters.  The Taliban had generally had the run of the place prior to our arrival, so it was likely to be peppered with IEDs(Improvised Explosive Devices), booby traps, and other nasty little surprises courtesy of the Taliban.  Compared to Delaram, the environment was relatively lush with green foliage.  The landscape was spotted with oases comprised of creeks, trees, corn fields, and tall grass.  Due to the difficulty of emplacing IEDs within them, the 3/7 Marines spent a large proportion of time wading through these creeks.  Inside of the oases were mud compounds that we would utilize in our operations for clearing the area.  The plan was to move out of FOB Inkerman, the main base in the area of responsibility of Kilo Company, 3/7, and set up patrol bases to operate out of until we were ready to expand further.  We wouldn’t stop until we had reached the Helmand River.  There was one minor issue with this, which I alluded to earlier: the Taliban had the area chock full of things ready to blow up on us.  In between us and the Helmand River were long lines of trees that we needed to bypass.  These trees spelled big trouble for foot mobile Marines.  It was a simple task for the Taliban to emplace jugs of homemade explosives up in a tree and wire them to a pressure plate in the ground.  The solution to this problem?  Why, blow them up, of course.  In order to do this, the Marine Corps has a neat machine called the ABV, for assault breacher vehicle.  It is essentially a tank with a full width mine plow on the front, and a line charge in the back.  A line charge is a 90 meter long string of C4 explosives, totaling 1,750 pounds.  The ABV would line up a ways in front of the tree line, and attach the coiled line charge to a rocket.  The rocket would then launch in an arc, uncoiling the line charge and draping it over the route that we planned to take through the tree line.  After the line charge was nice and laid out right where we wanted it….boom.  And when I say boom what I mean is BOOM.  Despite being over a kilometer away, I could still feel my teeth clatter when it went off.  After the line charge detonated, the ABV would lower its mine plow, and literally plow the ground up in front of itself as it drove along the same line on which the charge had detonated.  This is a process called proofing the lane.  The main idea is to use a replaceable, inexpensive (compared to a whole tank) piece of metal like the plow to physically initiate any devices that the line charge may have missed.  The line charge is the main mitigator of the IED problem, the plow is the double check, and of course as it rolls over the area, the armored ABV itself is the triple check.  After this process is completed, all of our men and vehicles were cleared to walk through.  We performed this orchestrated dance once, rested, set up a few patrol bases, got reset, and on July 22nd, 2010, we were ready to go again.

Since the previous push had worked so well, we were simply going to repeat the same process as we had executed when moving to our current position.  Fire the line charge, proof the lane, and move through.  For myself, there was one small difference.  While this was going on, I would be with 1st Squad, 3rd Platoon, Kilo Company, which was a part of a larger contingent providing security on the outside of the vehicle column.  We would be moving alongside the column, yet removed from it along the sides in order to prevent any ambushes from the Taliban.  This mission involved walking through narrow passageways in forested areas.  Typically I would proceed through first so that I could identify any booby traps.  Luckily for us these areas were trap free.  The push began mid-morning, and continued relatively snag free to the early afternoon.  Our squad patrolled alongside the column, meeting no resistance, and catching no sneaky Taliban in the act of ambush.  We patrolled in grassy fields along lush tree lines, through corn waving in the breeze, and along creeks.  At one point as we walked along a tree line we came across a group of Marines whom I knew from my engineer platoon.  They yelled out to me that an IED had been discovered where they were, and to be on the alert.  I acknowledged their warning, and our column continued on our way.  It wasn’t until weeks later that I was informed that indeed that was the spot where my friend Daniel had been hit by an IED triggered by an Afghan National Army soldier’s misstep during a firefight.  We continued for another 45 minutes when the patrol leader, Shane Otwell, had us take a knee.  We had gotten to a point where we came back into contact with the rest of our infantry platoon, so we took a rest while the leadership had a meeting.  We relaxed for 15 minutes or so before the order to get moving came.  I stood up from my spot and heard a loud POP!  Was that a bullet going overhead?  No, not quite the right sound.  After another split second of my brain processing the noise, I knew what it was.  It sounded exactly like a blasting cap exploding.  And it wasn’t one of mine. 

An IED is an explosive device that is built and employed in ways that are different than the conventional military approach.  Examples of such unconventional methods are making explosives in one’s home, or using a bomb made from an artillery shell(arty shells are designed to be fired from a howitzer as opposed to blown up on the side of the road).  IEDs are comprised of three main components.  The first is the main charge, which is self-explanatory.  The main charge is the primary explosive in the device.  The second component is the casing, which is the container of the main charge.  The casing is used for a few reasons.  First, it serves to protect the explosives.  If homemade explosives or military grade explosives are exposed to the environment, their effectiveness can be reduced to the point that they will not initiate.  Second, the casing serves to keep the explosives packed tightly.  The tighter the explosive mixture is, the more chance that the entire explosive will initiate.  If the explosives are too loose, the initiator may not be able to detonate the main charge, or the main charge may blow pieces of itself off instead of initiating them.  Third, the material that the casing is comprised of can alter the way the explosives behave.  The more robust the casing, the more the pressure is built up inside of the container, which results in an explosion with greater force.  Metal casings can also be used to create shrapnel as the explosives blow them apart.  In more sophisticated uses of explosives, such as penetrating steel, the casing can be set up in a certain way to direct the force of the blast into a small, concentrated jet of gas which then cuts through the steel.  The final component of an IED is the initiation system, which is comprised of the power source, the switch, and the initiator.  The power source is just that: an item that provides electricity to the initiator, typically a blasting cap.  The initiator is an object that is detonated by the electricity from the power source, and which subsequently detonates the main charge.  The switch is the object that connects these two parts together.  The switch will change based on how the bomb makers wishes for the device to be initiated.  He has several options in this regard.  Command detonation(he waits and pulls a string when he wants the bomb to go off), timer detonation(connect it all to a clock, and the little hand says it’s time to rock and roll), radio control(connect it to a cell phone, call the phone), and the most popular in beautiful Sangin, victim initiated(trip wire, land mine).  In the case of a pressure plate, the Taliban bomb maker’s favorite of the victim initiated IEDs, the battery will have wires connected to each electrical pole.  One of these wires will go directly to the initiator.  The other will lead to the pressure plate.  A pressure plate can be made of a multitude of materials, depending on the desired target of the IED.  If an IED is designed to initiate when a human being steps on it, the pressure plate is typically flimsy plastic or wood.  A good example, and common material in Afghanistan was a shampoo bottle.  The wire would enter the top half of a sideways shampoo bottle, and wind its way back and forth along the inner edge of the bottle.  The wire would then be cut, and the other end would be wound along the bottom of the bottle, and continue on to the initiator.  Thus, when a person steps on the bottle, the two wires will touch as the bottle is crushed down, and the circuit will be completed, delivering an electrical current to the blasting cap.  In order for explosives to be a viable tool for military use, they must be stable(resistant to detonation) enough to be handled, moved, and employed.  Thus, the larger main charges are very difficult to initiate on their own.  Modern day explosives can be abused quite harshly without exploding.  It takes a significant amount of simultaneous heat and pressure in order to cause the chemical reactions that result in an explosion from these explosives.  The vast majority of the time, the Taliban’s homemade explosives would follow the same principle.  Most of their main charges would be made out of Ammonium Nitrate, along with a little extra fuel source to make the explosion hotter.  These fuel sources could be Aluminum powder and also fuel oil.  In order to make these highly stable concoctions explode, the initiating charge is required.  The blasting cap is a cylindrical object about half the size of a Bic ink pen that is filled with much more volatile explosives.  In military blasting caps they are mostly filled with RDX(Research Department Explosive), which in and of itself is still relatively stable.  As one moves down the blasting cap, however, the chemicals require less and less heat and pressure in order for them to initiate.  Ultimately, one reaches an explosive that can be initiated with just a small puff of heat from black powder, or a small electrical current.  The Taliban initiators would, again, work along the same principle.  Their homemade versions would commonly be made from Bic ink pens, and filled with TATP, or HMTD, two extremely volatile explosives.  Putting this whole system together, the victim steps on the ground underneath which the pressure plate is buried, the force crushes the plate which causes the cut wires to touch, which completes the electrical circuit, which allows current to flow from the power source through the wires to the blasting cap, which initiates the small amount of volatile explosives in the end of the cap, which initiates the more stable and voluminous explosives in the cap, which provide enough heat and pressure to initiate the main charge.

After there was no loud report of an explosion going off, I knew how lucky Hernandez had been.  He had just stepped on an IED, and for whatever reason, the blasting cap went off but did not initiate the main charge.  Maybe the charge hadn’t been packaged well, and had gotten wet.  Maybe the main charge wasn’t packed tightly enough around the blasting cap.  Maybe the mixture used in the homemade explosive wasn’t quite right, thus rendering it inert.  I didn’t have time to think about that as I sprang into action, pulling out my metal detector as I walked over to where Hernandez was.  Needless to say, the tension of these moments were palpable.  Hernandez moved his way backward in our column, and I moved to the front in order to begin my task of route finding through this newly emerged danger area.  A danger area is any location with a high likelihood of…danger.  For example, an area that is likely to be covered by enemy firing positions, or an area that is likely to contain an IED.  One can surmise there is a high likelihood of an IED existing in an area in a couple of ways.  The obvious way is if one has recently exploded.  The sneaky Taliban likes to emplace multiple IEDs in the same spot because they know that if a Marine is hit, others will come for him.  Thus, it is highly likely that where there is one, there are at least two.  A second way is to recognize a choke point.  A choke point is a specific area into which forces are seemingly required to proceed, whether compelled by terrain or by obstacles.  A simple example of this is a bridge crossing over a wide river.  Since the enemy knows that this is the only area that this force could proceed, they choose to employ their limited resources on this area, making it dangerous.

The concept of finding an IED is relatively simple.  It is essentially identifying what doesn’t belong in the natural area in front of you.  Before one proceeds, however, one must ensure that all of the Marines with them are at a distance such that if the searcher unintentionally detonates an IED during his investigation, the Marines he is with will not be harmed.  The first step is to take a good look at where you are, and where you plan to go.  Identify anything that looks out of the ordinary with respect to nature.  The world naturally doesn’t often have patterns or perfect shapes.  Essentially, you are looking for areas where you suspect man has been in contact with nature.  When one patrols in the same area frequently, one can establish a baseline observation for what this area looks like normally.  Thus, on subsequent visits, it is possible to identify elements that are out of place.  For example, a dirt mound that wasn’t there the day before, or other standard markings that the Taliban used that didn’t exist previously, such as stacks of rocks.  It is by remaining vigilant and observant that Marines can frequently discover IEDs prior to their detonation.  It is slightly different, however, when one is breaking trail into an area that has previously been untouched by Marines in recent history.  There is no way to know exactly what this area looked like yesterday, or the week before, or any way of establishing a baseline.  For all I knew, these IEDs could have been buried two years ago and never have been found or used. 

The next step is to investigate the route that you have chosen through this danger area.  The three main tools used for this investigation are the eyeballs, a metal detector, and a cutting-edge digging device called a human hand.  Proceeding slowly in a forward direction, one swings the metal detector in a fashion that covers every square inch of the chosen route.  In order to do this, start with the metal detector to one side of the route, and move it straight across to the other side, keeping the search head an inch or two above and parallel to the ground.  Once it is across, move the detector forward half the length of the search head, and swing it the opposite direction to the original side of the route.  This is a process that continues for the entirety of your time moving through the danger area.

At some point during your movement along this route, you will want to investigate certain spots that you think may contain an IED.  You can be alerted to these spots in multiple ways: from your earlier assessment before proceeding through the area, newly acquired suspicions as you move through the area, and also from sounds that your metal detector makes.  The Vallon metal detector(the model we used in 2010) has nine levels to indicate metal detection.  1, meaning the lowest possible detection, to 9, meaning the highest level, each with its own distinct sound.  It also has a sensitivity setting so that smaller bits of metal will cause it to signify a “hit,” or make a sound as it goes over the ground.  It is up to the engineer, or whoever is using the detector to decide where to place this sensitivity setting, and if any hit from the metal detector is worth investigating.  This can be decided based on the likelihood of an IED’s existence, and also how high of a metal reading the detector indicates.  If it is decided that a hit is worth investigating, one must find the center of the metal signature.  This is done by slowly approaching the area of the hit from top, bottom, left, and right, and marking or remembering the spot at which the exact same tone is emitted by the detector, signifying the distance away from the center.  The middle of all of these four marks is the middle of the metal hit.  One must also find the forward edge of the metal hit by approaching it from the front, and waiting for a tone.  The process of swinging the metal detector back and forth and inching forward is time consuming.  The best of the best are the ones that can optimize safety and keep time spent to a minimum.  It is always better, however, to err on the side of caution except in the most extreme of emergencies. 

The investigation of a suspicious area must proceed with extreme caution.  You start by kneeling down, being sure to be well balanced and stable.  You must ensure that no gear is going to accidentally fall off, or slip out, and touch the ground.  You reach out with your fingers and with the gentleness of a butterfly landing on a daisy, move the dirt in front of the front edge of the metal hit.  Proceed forward a nanometer at a time in this fashion, uncovering more dirt over a wider space until you either find the metal that set off the detector, or are satisfied that there is no danger from this particular metal hit.  If metal is found, the area must be rechecked to ensure that the metal found was not a decoy.  One may think that the tension during this time is akin to being Tom Cruise dangling inches above a motion sensor floor, but the necessity of having a clear mind, and the amount of practice that has gone into this exact process makes it seem second nature and ordinary.  After you are satisfied that you have cleared this suspicious area, proceed forward.  As you move forward you are also proofing the lane.  That thing that is usually done with a special mechanical device is now being done with your feet.  And don’t forget as you go forward to lay down markers for everyone else who comes behind you to follow.

This is the way that I handled the situation I was now in.  I inched forward with my metal detector.  I didn’t see anything special about the area.  My metal detector was making noises, but nothing large enough that I thought warranted investigation.  The Marines in our patrol watched and waited as I cleared and proofed the lane.  Then it all went black.

An explosion is simply a chemical reaction that produces heat and gases.  This production of heat is so fast, however, that it creates a shockwave.  A shockwave is a layer of air that gets pushed outwardly from the source of the explosion at extremely high speed, for example 27,000 feet per second for C-4.  This layer of air is what causes the damage.  Trillions of air molecules all travelling at such high speed will cut through metal, push heavy objects, fling dirt, and sever limbs off of human beings more efficiently than the sharpest scalpel. 

Two things happened simultaneously when whatever explosive device that hit me exploded.  First, the shockwave cut through my toes, severing them.  It didn’t slow as it cut through my shins, severing them next.  It sent dirt, grit, and shrapnel upward into my legs, buttocks, and any other part of my body that was exposed.  Next, it launched me a few feet into the air, and deposited me onto the ground, unconscious.  Blood was pouring out of the newly opened arteries and into the dirt.  Muscle and bone dangled from the remnants of my legs.  Vicious bacteria latched on and invaded through the new opening.  The dust rose, and settled, and I woke up.