6 Surprising Realities of Being a Military Bomb Hunter
Movies and video games have given us an image of the modern armed forces in Afghanistan -- all dressed up in beige camo, maybe one of those cool masks pulled over their faces to keep the sand out, shooting giant phallic rifles and blowing shit up with remote detonators while high tech Predator drones fly overhead raining aerial death on the bad guys. Toss in some pithy one-liners and call it a war. I had the same picture in my mind before I went over there to hunt for roadside bombs. That's when I realized ...
The Equipment Isn't Quite How You Picture It
Since 2007, nearly half of the coalition deaths in Afghanistan have been from IEDs. These are popular with insurgents mainly because they're cheap and don't require taking bullets to the face -- hey, even explosive murder operates on a budget. The military says that people like me, the "Route Clearance Patrol," have one of the most dangerous jobs out there, because our essential job description involves driving around in giant trucks and looking for bombs. It's terrifying and nerve-wracking, sure, but we're actually pretty excited to find bombs.
That's partly due to the warm fuzzy feeling we get from protecting our comrades. But I'd be lying if I said driving around in the vehicle that almost certainly forms Voltron's erection didn't factor into it just a tad:
In the early days of the war, troops rolled along in Humvees. These did about as much to appease the wrath of Sarkon, the Explosion-Eating God, as face paint and prayers. Today we have tons of different trucks that were designed to be blown up. Trucks like the Husky, below, which is more or less a tractor for harvesting deadly, deadly bombs.
The key is aerated soil, and also high explosives.
It drives forward scanning the road for explosives, followed by huge trucks like the Buffalo that eat up fertilizer bombs like Pringles. Once an IED is spotted and marked by the Husky, the Buffalo pulls up and digs it out with a hydraulic rake. It just rakes up a bomb like it ain't no thing. In the worst case scenario, the bomb goes off; the people in the trucks (that's us) get shaken up a bit, and then we hop out and pick up the pieces that were blown off so they can be reassembled like a grittily rebooted erector set.
Erector 2: De-rected, coming to theaters this July.
Mankind's oldest foe, gigantic explosions, has fallen to our relentless passion for welding huge slabs of metal to wheels. But this doesn't make the job risk-free. My greatest enemy is something no bearded mountainfolk can bury beside a highway ...
Your Worst Enemy Is Boredom
It was the early afternoon, and we were trundling home from a long mission to a distant forward operating base. We'd been driving for something like six hours, and the unchecked nature of our route kept us locked into a blistering 4 mph pace. Yes, we're trained soldiers. That doesn't mean we can stare at a rocky mountain road for hours on end without nodding off.
Test your own ability by staring at this picture for nine hours in a small metal box.
So the first vehicle missed this IED, and so did the second, third, fourth ... well, the vehicle it hit was a heavily armored semi-truck towing a trailer full of diesel fuel. It went off, but the guys who made the bomb clearly didn't do something right. Instead of a huge boom, it hit like the feeble fart of an old man dying from fiber deficiency. When you're driving an armored Freightliner semi-truck hauling thousands of gallons of diesel, every rock feels like a huge bump. The drivers thought they'd just blown through a big pothole at first, then the rocks started falling around them and they radioed "I think we just took a det(onation)." They didn't say the parentheses. They're silent.
Anyway, they got lucky that day -- a grown-up bomb could've turned that 30-ton semi into meat-and-metal confetti. All of those guys' lives were saved solely by the Taliban's bomb maker skipping his Folgers that morning.
The best part of waking up is not exploding later that day.
The assholes trying to kill you don't operate on Wile E. Coyote logic. There are no boxes placed next to the road with a huge sign saying "FREE PORN MAGS HERE!" and a suspiciously bomb-shaped bulge in the bottom. But more often than not, they'll leave clues. Seeing little things like freshly dug dirt or a pile of rocks stacked vertically could mean the difference between eating shitty pouch food for a few years and drinking it through a straw for the rest of your life. But it's hard to see those signs when your own mind is actively fighting you. After a few hours of staring at a landscape with crippling depression, your mind starts supplying what it expects to see -- dirt, dirt, rock, hey, look, a goat! rock, dirt, more dirt -- and it skips right over that pressure plate you're about to hit. This effect is compounded when all you can think about is the sweet, sweet Xbox waiting at home. All alone. It must miss you so much, the poor thing.
You do everything you can do to fight boredom, mostly by chewing tobacco and pounding energy drinks. This inevitably leads to pissing in bottles, because rural Afghanistan is notoriously deficient in 7-Elevens. (You do find the odd Chevron, but seriously -- you think American gas station bathrooms are bad?) My truck was a single seater, and I only had 3 inches to my left, 3 inches to my right, and an inch or so between my body armor and the wheel. When you have to pee, the tight confines are interesting to try to maneuver around, and by interesting I mean covered in urine.
You'd be surprised at how much of modern warfare smells like pee.
Before you leave the wire, you have to make sure that everything in the vehicle is strapped down, otherwise it could become a missile. It's like a car accident, only the other vehicle is a bomb made with several hundred pounds of poo. You strap everything down. Ammo cans, food cans, water ... it all has ratchet straps and bungee cords on it. So what happens to the piss bottles? Well, they only go free at the risk of having your skull caved in by your own pee in the event of a blast. Nobody wants that on their tombstone.
Most of Your Time Is Spent Waiting for Parts
We do preventive checks and maintenance before we ever leave the wire. We check our belts, our hoses, our fluids, our pee bottles -- everything. It takes two hours. But the terrain out there is bad enough to break any vehicle. You're going to blow a tire. It's a given. Any mechanical part that moves is going to break. U-joints, suspension parts, air conditioners -- everything breaks. You start to wonder: Was it ever truly working? Is its natural state what we call "working," or perhaps was it always meant to be broken? It's downright goddamn philosophical. Wait, no -- annoying. That's what it is.
But what is philosophy if not annoying?
If the air conditioner breaks, the vehicle is considered "deadlined," and we can't take it out on a mission until it's fixed. Just because of the A/C. Think we sound like a bunch of fancy-pants armchair infantry with our precious climate control? Try wearing full-body armor in a 20-ton metal can baking under the Afghan sun. With the windows up. There is no such thing as a bomb-proof convertible.
Air-conditioning is a necessity because heat stroke exists. But if it breaks on a mission, you're just fucked, and you might as well start strokin' that heat. One of the trucks we had consistently lost its A/C about two hours in. And when it went out, the inside of the truck would easily hit 120 in the summertime. The smell in that cabin after a full 10 hours of body armor and anxiety sweat is best described as "Lovecraftian."
Taint-sweat in the morning does not smell like victory.
Unfortunately, the supply chain is often so backlogged that hard-to-find parts can take forever. A lot of times you wind up getting shipped the wrong parts, and just as often fixing one thing breaks something else. So it's, well, it's pretty much like fixing your car at home, only if you had to run every single bolt through a crushing government bureaucracy. But hey, if you do a real good job, everything works just fine.
For about a week, before a new part breaks.
If only Afghanistan weren't a dry country.
Life is a delicate fuckin' ballet.
We Have Our Own Wartime Forensics Experts
Good news, everyone!
We can't be more than a year or two away from CSI: Kabul. Roadside bombs leave evidence, just like any other crime. And we have our own forensics experts to help figure out exactly which assholes tried to kill us this time. Was it the assholes, or the assholes? It's a subtle language. Huge difference.
"We're not totally sure ourselves."
First they get down to the blast crater and take measurements and soil samples to figure out what kind of ingredients were used to make the bomb. The next step is to calculate the size of the blast to try to figure out how big the intact bomb was and how much punch it packed. Then it's off to look for pieces of the bomb that might have survived the blast so the experts can study them. You'd be shocked at how much money we spend every year on cool sunglasses to put on after one-liners. That's not even mentioning the licensing fees for that Who song.
That's not to say it's all store-brand quality puns and guitar licks, though. Forensics is useful stuff, even in a war zone: Every bomb maker out there has a signature fingerprint. It's very dangerous work, so they often build them the exact same way every time they make them, lest they try something new and blow themselves up in the process. Eventually if enough bomb fragments are recovered and all the little clues are put together, the experts can get a pretty clear idea of who the bomb maker is. If nothing else, it gives us a chance to cut off their ingredients. That's easier said than done, because terrorists are so crafty, I'm surprised more of them haven't found gainful employment on Etsy.
$300. $350 if you want it personalized with your favorite My Little Pony.
No, seriously ...
They Can Make a Bomb Out of Anything
Much like your fourth grade art teacher taught you, the only thing limiting a bomb maker is his imagination. They can use cellphones, clocks, garage door openers, kitchen timers, anything. Even the humble Tabasco bottle, former mainstay of our MREs, can be twisted to evil purposes. They'll fill it with a sensitive chemical that sets off the main charge when crushed by a vehicle driving over -- or even an errant boot step. It's like fighting an army of bearded dickhead MacGyvers.
Et tu, Tabasco?
Afghan insurgents are very poor. If they didn't use junk to try to kill us, well, they would have to stop trying to kill us altogether. And what is life, if you don't follow your dreams? You heard about those explosively formed penetrators in Iraq, where they'd use copper pots to form shaped charges? That wasn't ghetto. Iraq had fancy insurgents. People in Afghanistan aren't going to waste a copper pot on murdering a stranger when they can use it to cook food for their family. They'd rather use plastic jugs (which are given out a lot for aid purposes) and pack them full of explosives. These guys make maybe a thousand dollars a year if they're lucky. They have to be experts at ballin' on a budget. For example: Take 110 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, mix in the contents of a military garbage dump, and you've got enough bomb to vaporize a Humvee for less than the cost of an iPad.
"I'm impressed at the blast radius! And their thrift!"
There's like the equivalent of the Frugal Gourmet somewhere out there in Afghanistan right now, teaching folks how to blow up an American without breaking the bank.
Afghanistan Can Be Hilarious
This is like the potpourri category on Jeopardy! -- all the random stuff that doesn't fit anywhere else. But it might give you the sense that not everything is deadly serious all the time. Even war has moments of absurdity.
The Normandy landings were actually accompanied by the "Yakety Sax" theme.
My first time on route in Afghanistan, I saw all these kids giving us thumbs up as we drove by. It was awesome and endearing -- they would run out from wherever they were and flood the sidewalks just to give us a thumbs up. I thought they must really love us. Then I noticed they got pissed off whenever I gave them the thumbs up back. It turns out the thumbs up is how the kids ask for candy. To them, it looked like I was denying them candy and then mocking them.
Later that same day we were stopped and got busy loading one of our busted trucks onto a flatbed, and I saw I see this old Afghan dude stop by the road to watch us. He got close to my truck, maybe 5 feet away, then lifted up his man-dress and took a shit right in front of me. Welcome to Afghanistan!
The world's beard-basket.
Another day we stopped to take a piss break and situated our trucks so that we were blocking the road. Everybody was forced to drive through the desert around us. One guy didn't go around. He hopped right out to look at our trucks. So we asked him questions and looked in his broken-ass old '80s sedan to see ... an entire family and two full-size cows crammed into his hatchback.
Give this dude a flatbed truck and he'll carry the whole damn herd.
This next picture is of an RG31 fording what we initially thought was a river of mud. It wasn't until we were 5 feet deep that we realized this "mud" was pure human shit.
The smell first started seeping in through the air conditioning, and the horrifying realization hit every man in the convoy at a different time. This was downright tragic in the case of one of our gunners. He was strapped into an exposed turret, directly behind the giant back wheels of one of our tractor tanks. If you've ever had a car stuck in the mud, you know what happens next: Those wheels spun a tidal wave of rancid poo right into his face.
"Spinning your wheels in a lake of shit" is as good a metaphor for the war in Afghanistan as I can give. Maybe they'll issue us snorkels on the next tour.
Jim Walker would like you to support the veteran-owned business Inkfidel. Please consider supporting The Art of War project to help vets struggling with PTSD. Robert Evans can be reached here if you have a story you'd like to tell him.
Related Reading: Cracked talked to a real-life drone pilot too, and we wrote this article with him. More interested in an inside look at spycraft? We've got you covered. There's also this article by a prison guard to satisfy your need for order, and this article by a legal prostitute to sate your lust for vice.