Friday, January 23, 2009

We Blew Up Things

While it’s certainly fun to write about the more exciting missions I ran in Iraq and the firefights, the chaos and the adventures, they only represent a small fraction of the actual missions we completed.

During my first tour alone we ran more than 250 mission. That’s only about six solid months in country. Needless to say, we were busy. And our missions, by the way, only represented less than a quarter of those in my company. All said and done, I think we ran well over 1,000. Most of them, I must admit, were pretty damn boring.

One of our main functions as a Combined Anti-Armor Team (CAAT) was escorting Explosives Ordnance Disposal (EOD) personnel safely around our Area of Operations (AO) and securing an area while they handled whatever ordnance had been found. These missions were either very interesting, or very dull.

Marine Corps EOD guys are, as a general rule, completely insane. I believe they are the only EOD team in the entire United States military that will ever approach a pile of unexploded ordnance and look at it. Everybody else sends a robot. They did sometimes, particularly when somebody had spotted an unexploded IED and had managed to get away from it in time, but occasionally they’d just walk up to the bombs and look at them.

I guess that their personalities combine criminal pyromania with an equally criminal fascination with things blowing up. They always use too much explosives. And most of the guys I knew were completely deaf. They are, without question, absolutely nuts. So we liked working with them – when they didn’t drag ass and take a long time to do something stupid and simple.

At any given time, day or night, a unit would come across an IED, cordon off the area, and call EOD to come disable it. If an IED had blown up already, they were still called out – not only to do a post-blast analysis, but also ensure that no unexploded ordnance remained in the area – either as a threat, or to be used for any additional bomb making. They would also come out to collect and blow up and weapons caches that a unit had found. With engineers combing the ground with metal detectors, and considering that Iraq had the fourth largest military in the world, weapons and ordnance are buried almost everywhere. All you have to do is look for it. We would just safely escort them out there, cordon off the area, and sit – like idiots, while they did their thing. At times, we cursed them for their patience and caution. Other times, they were a lot of fun.

Whenever we were called out to do a post-blast analysis, it meant that we’d be walking up on the aftermath of a unit getting hit by IEDs – which meant we frequently arrived on grisly scenes with carnage, demolished or damaged humvees, civilian casualties, and even our own dead and wounded. More than once we would help them evacuate the unit's wounded and reinforce their reduced numbers. Or our doc (Navy medical corpsman) would assist them with the wounded. I remember one time when he used a poncho to cover a dead Marine. A year later, the Marine Corps still refused to give him a new poncho. He ended up buying one with his own money. He also had nightmares for a long time.

Those missions were typically chaotic at best, and not fun at all. They took us to scenes of death. But those were less common than somebody simply finding an IED and calling EOD out to get rid of it.

Everybody would park at a safe distance, and EOD would deploy their robot (which had a bunch of stupid names, depending on who you asked. R2D2, Johnny #5, Car Ramrod, etc). Their robot had a camera, and they’d go up, look at the IED, try to figure out the best way to disable it, and then usually drop an entire stick of C4 on it. This packs more punch than a stick of dynamite. And it’s entire purpose was as a clearing charge. While it usually wouldn’t detonate the device at all, the force of the blast would knock away whatever wires or detonation cord (det cord) was hooked into the IED. And now, rendered little more than a heap of old artillery rounds, it was safe for the EOD guys to approach and start pulling out the rounds to remove them.

Sometimes things went wrong, however. The stupid robot broke down all the time, which was a pain in the ass, and they’d either have to fix it, use another, or try to “sneak” up on the IED and put a charge on it by hand. The latter was the least preferable of the three. There was one time when the EOD guy walked up, expecting to find that the clearing charge and disabled the IED, but discovered that it was fully intact and capable of killing him. But you know what; he didn’t run. He just jumped into the hole and started ripping wires out of the artillery rounds. So there he was, yanking maniacally, and then he suddenly stopped and knelt down – wiped out. He’d managed to get everything ripped out before anybody could detonate it on him. He knelt there for a second, regained his composure, and then started stacking up the rounds to get rid of them. I think this only happened once when we were around, but there were probably a lot of close calls that they’d consider all in a day’s work, and we’d consider purely insane.

Whenever an IED was recovered or they examined an already-detonated site, they’d usually find whatever electronics operated the thing and take them back to study them. Each IED-building, interestingly, has his own specific ways of doing things. One only uses a certain kind of detonator, or a certain color wire, or even a specific type or radio or cell phone. Using the materials they found, the EOD guys were able to figure out how many people were building IEDs in our area, and even who was training others to do the same thing. I was amazed they could figure all that out from looking at a jumble of wires, but they were extremely talented, and most of them had been doing it for awhile. They knew what to look for. Later on, they’d write up reports and send them up the chain so everybody knew what to look for. If they collaborated with neighboring units, they could figure out how large an area some of the bomb makers operated. One city, or maybe even one entire province. Most of them were local though.

After collecting the rounds, or showing up on a cache site (some of which were absolutely huge), they had to decide if they wanted to bring them back to a secure area on base, blow them up in place (if they were unstable to move), or make an enormous pile of ordnance and detonate it right there. The big piles were the most fun.

We had patrols find caches sometimes with hundreds of artillery rounds, cases of ammo, rifles, RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) and an assortment of things that blow up. A lot of it was unstable. You could handle it carefully (sometimes), but you certainly couldn’t throw it in a humvee and take it back to base. So, they’d stack it all up and blow it right were it stood.

There’s an art to laying explosive charges on heaps of ordnance. You can’t just put a charge down and then stack a bunch of things on top of it. That would just detonate the lowest things and then send the rest high in the sky – which would have to be picked up and detonated again, which was a real pain (we’ve done it). What they would do is stack the smallest things on the bottom – like ammunition. That way, the bullets wouldn’t go everywhere. They’d just blow up into the dirt. On top of that, they’d stack the artillery rounds like firewood until they had a large pile. Then they’d lay blocks of C4 all the way from one side to the other – overlapping the blocks so they’d be sure to have proper detonation. They took some other measures to ensure full detonation, but they’re pretty technical, and I probably shouldn’t be repeating them, anyway. When it was all done, though, there would be a continuous line of C4 from one side of the heap, all the way across the top to the other. And when it blew, it would direct the explosion down, which would cause the rounds to detonate directly below them – and those would in turn set off the layers below. This chain reaction continued all the way to the bottom of the pile where the smallest things lay. The idea was to direct the force of the explosion down – not up or out. It also reduced “splatter,” when the rounds break open, but don’t actually detonate.

Quite a few of these heaps were so large that we had to back off as much as a kilometer to detonate them safely. They always double primed them – meaning that there were two lengths of time fuse burning (equally long), and they would both reach the detonators at the same time. If one failed, we hoped the other one would not. The last thing we wanted was neither to go off, and then some poor bastard would have to go back and set another charge – which was potentially suicide.

Depending on what was being detonated, the explosions could be extremely loud, extremely colorful, or create an enormous fireball. I liked all three – and my hearing isn’t so hot because of it, actually.

Occasionally we ran into a white phosphorous artillery round, which created a fireworks-style explosion, with burning arcs pouring from the blast. Standard artillery rounds were just loud. Anti-aircraft ammo also looked like fireworks as the bullets burned and rained down in a beautiful show of color. Some things made fireballs – especially when they had fuel involved – mostly homemade stuff.

When they had started the primers, everybody backed off the appropriate distance, and we counted down to detonation, ducked (sometimes), and waited for the whole thing to go up. A lot of guy filmed it, which was pretty neat. Then, after a few minutes of safety, the EOD guys would go BACK to the site and make sure everything had blown up all the way. If it hadn’t, they’d wait for it to cool, then stack it again and blow it. There were multiple times when we had incomplete detonation – especially one particularly strange IED.

Some asshole had put an old refrigerator on the side of the road and literally filled it with artillery rounds. Because it wasn’t really safe to get close to, EOD just laid some charges around it and then blew it up. And it just scattered everything. We waited FOREVER for things to cool down. When they finally did, they reset the charge and took care of it. That one, by the way, we weren’t far enough way from. Crap landed all around our vehicles, on us, and all over the pavement. None of it had any velocity, since it was just raining down, but it was still extremely hot and burned – especially when I tried to pick up a piece, which was exceedingly stupid.

When the EOD guys were going through Fallujah during the fight for the city, they had to work fast, not only because of the number of caches that were being found, but because kids would run out and take the charge off the IED and throw it away – they were petulant little shits. It got so bad that the EOD guys would just throw a SHORT fuse on it and run like hell to get out of range. Nobody came up to those, and if they did, that was it. But they had other problems in Fallujah, too. They had to do most of this while under fire. Yet, crazy as they were, they’d just ignore it, smoke cigars, and stand there in the open like morons.

If they found weapons caches in people’s houses, it was pretty obvious that they were insurgents, so they’d just detonate the caches INSIDE the house, which I think is pretty smart. Serves them right for trying to hide ordnance and use it to blow up troops. Now they’ve lost their house.

I did feel badly though that sometimes we’d find caches out in palm groves. They’d detonate them where they found them, leave huge craters, and knock down dozens of palm trees. I felt badly for the trees – which is probably an indication that there’s something wrong with me. Whatever. I guess they shouldn’t have hidden weapons in their palm groves. But since trees are so scarce in Iraq, I felt sort of badly blowing them up. Something’s obviously wrong with me. I’m not worrying about peoples’ houses, but about the trees. In Iraq.

Anyway, the EOD personnel often needed an extra hand with all their stuff, so we’d help them stack weapons and rounds, and then lay out the charges. I still have a couple satchel charge bags I grabbed after I laid out the C4 inside of them. They’re pretty handy things, though I’m sure that I’d get arrested if I went through an airport with them. They’re probably still covered in explosives residue. I try not to bring them with me for that reason whenever I fly.

Blowing stuff up was an everyday thing for us, and something we certainly enjoyed. I considered getting into EOD, but there are a number of disadvantages. First, you have to be completely crazy. I think I’m only halfway there. Second, you spend a LONG time in EOD school learning about every single landmine, missile, and round made in every country on the planet. Fourth, you have to enlist for a LONG contract. And finally, they are the most deployed MOS (military occupational specialty) in the entire United States military. You will never have a normal life. They’re always gone, always in short supply, and get blown up on a fairly regular basis. They do a dangerous job – and accidents happen. But for many of them, exploding things is their life, and they’ll always love it. And struggle to understand people because they’re completely deaf. Well, and insane, too.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

1 comment:

  1. A hero is one who exhibits grace in the face of great danger.