Clearing IEDs and Saving Lives in Iraq

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IEEE Spectrum executive editor Glenn Zorpette reports from Iraq, where he is on assignment for an upcoming story about counter-IED technology. This is Zorpette's second visit to Iraq. He traveled there in late 2005 to report about reconstruction efforts in his award-winning feature "Re-engineering Iraq." This picture of Zorpette, middle, interviewing an Iraqi civilian, comes courtesy of L. Kendal Smith.

1-22-08

I'm back for a night at Camp Victory after a couple days with an Explosives Ordnance Demolition team at a dusty Forward Operating Base south of Baghdad....

EOD techs are called in whenever IEDs are found, and, using robots, they either disable and collect the devices for forensic analysis or they blow them up. They are also called in to help troops move through an area, often by clearing routes of IEDs.

The EOD techs I talked to were all young, gung ho, profanely funny, and smart. There was a sign taped to the door of their tent: â''It you open this box, run away as fast as you can and call EOD. If you are reading this message, you are already dead.â'' They had lots of video they'd shot of the explosions, some huge, that occurred when they blew up IEDs.

One guy described a mission he'd been on this past Nov. 7 to accompany troops moving on foot through a bad area south of Baghdad. Their objective was to â''go in and capture some high-value individuals.â'' Or, presumably, kill them, but he didn't say that

specifically. There were two EOD techs, including the guy who told me the story.

The patrol was being led by a CLC who said he knew where the IEDs were. The area was known to have a lot of pressure-plate IEDs, which go off when the victim steps on the plate. One and a half kilometers in, they came under fire briefly, and took cover. The fire

stopped; apparently this is SOP for the insurgents. They fire on Coalition troops to slow and harass the troops (and, of course, kill them if they can) and then they flee, because the insurgents understand they can't win a protracted gun battle.

After they realized the insurgents were gone, the patrol continued on. After about 150 meters, they heard another shot, which they assumed was from the same insurgents. But it was the CLC, who had taken it upon himself to shoot a single bullet at an abandoned house that was thought to have been used by Al Qaeda recently. The troops, not knowing where the shot came from, jumped in a canal to take cover. Then, after a few minutes, still not knowing that the shot had come from their own CLC, the officer leading the group brought up a fire team of three rifleists to address the perceived threat from the abandoned house. As the team was going forward, with the officer, one of the rifleists stepped on a pressure-plate IED and it blew, severely injuring the three rifleists and the officer. One of the IED guys immediately began using technical means (it's classified) to â''clearâ'' the area, i.e., make sure there weren't other IEDs.

They had to do this even before medics could go to the injured men, because there was no way of knowing whether there were other IEDs. The other troops had to stay still, because of that possibility, not uncommonly, IEDs are placed in groups. Basically, the EOD tech had to clear the area around the injured men so that they could be reached safely. He cleared an area to the most gravely injured guy, the one who had stepped on the plate, and the other EOD tech (the one who was telling me the story) dragged that severely injured soldier to a spot where the medic could start administering first aid. Then the first EOD tech had to clear an area so that the medevac helicopter, already on its way, could land.

He had no sooner done this than a sergeant yelled that he saw another IED nearby. So then that first EOD tech had to clear the area around *that* IED so that the troops there could move away safely.

It turned out that the IED that blew and the one the sergeant found were the only two devices they found. The guy who stepped on the plate died in a field hospital. He had a wife and two young kids. The other three guys had frag wounds in their legs and one of those guys also broke a leg. The officer leading the patrol never stopped giving orders and leading the patrol.

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