The sun has just risen over the hot, dry landscape of Afghanistan, prompting the soldiers of the US army to emerge from their cramped tents. They immediately begin their morning chores, though cleaning seems pointless in a land of sandstorms: everything is eternally coated with a layer of heavy dust. The soldiers are accustomed to their lives here, but once in a while, as they attempt a deep breath and feel the restricting effects of altitude in their throats, they are reminded of the dangerous day ahead.
In Afghanistan, each army unit finds at least one bomb nearly every day. A bombing can irreversibly hurt the war effort, it can demoralize soldiers and the citizens of their homelands, and it will kill. To combat this risk, specially trained and highly intelligent bomb disposal experts, or explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) specialists, assume the presence of extreme dangers.
On days when important officials from the Pentagon or federal agencies visit the campsite, the bomb disposal expert is charged with extra reconnaissance duties. The EOD specialist will be assigned to lead this official around – securing his path by ensuring it is clear of all weapons. Sniffer dogs often aid the bomb disposal expert in identifying weapons – particularly those that are non-metallic. The EOD specialist will comb through the grounds and scout out any suspicious material. If soil appears recently overturned or an abandoned vehicle rests at the side of the desert road, the EOD specialist knows to alert his team to clear the area. Additionally, he will check army cars for bombs and the VIP tent for inconsistencies.
If no important official is on-site, the bomb disposal expert must ensure his own team avoids bombs. He must find buried or stored weapons and disable or confiscate them. Destroying the enemy’s supply of ammunition is one of the primary goals of the war effort in Afghanistan. When military plans are taken from the enemy, the EOD specialist analyzes diagrams and anticipates what types of bombs will be used and where they will be hidden.
The bomb disposal expert has a variety of materials with which to deactivate a bomb. By cleaning and maintaining his explosive ordnance disposal tools and equipment, the bomb disposal expert prepares for the call that a suspected bomb has been discovered.
If the bomb disposal expert receives this call, he must be the first man on the scene to gather intelligence and confirm whether the unknown device is in fact an active weapon. If it is, he must safely dispose of it without sustaining an injury or harming his team. The method of disposal will vary based on the type of bomb.
Many bomb disposal specialists in Afghanistan have been trained to disable improvised explosive devices (IEDs). IEDs are homemade bombs often deployed on the roadside in a very grassroots, non-military fashion. This unconventional style, obviously originating from untrained hands, is, ironically, far more dangerous than expected military procedure. IEDs accounted for 40% of all US fatalities in Afghanistan in 2009.
Currently, Afghanistan is notorious for having created an IED lacking metal and electronic parts, rendering it undetectable. Prior to these new weapons, homemade bombs in Afghanistan were often detonated by applying pressure to two hack-saw blades separated by a spacer, which would complete a circuit and explode. The metallic blades were easily identifiable, but new IEDS are not so crude.
Since the number of homemade bombs in Afghanistan has risen 400% in the past 3 years, a bomb disposal expert must anticipate a challenge. He must understand makeshift bombs, as well as military bombs.
To tackle an IED, a bomb disposal expert will dress in an advanced bomb suit. This inflammable costume will shield his body from debris, heat, and sudden blast pressure. If the EOD specialist is wary of getting too close, he can employ a wheelbarrow – a remote control robot that approaches a suspected bomb to evaluate its nuclear, biological, chemical and structural components. The wheelbarrow is capable of climbing, turning 360 degrees, and destroying the bomb.
When the bomb disposal expert is not actively disarming enemy weapons, he must engage in support duties. The bomb disposal expert will determine the troops’ route for the day. The shortest distance to their destination may be through a simple crevice, but this is expected and the terrorists will likely have planted a bomb there. Therefore, the EOD expert will design an alternative trek – often much longer and far more difficult. Walking a straight path can easily become, for safety reasons, scaling a steep cliff and hiking for miles.
Unnervingly, terrorists also use biological and chemical bombs. These are far more difficult to prevent once activated. Therefore, the EOD specialist engages in radiological monitoring. Meticulously tracking radioactivity levels in the environment is the best way to avoid falling victim to chemical warfare.
At the end of an EOD specialist’s day, he must create intelligence reports with technical information and summaries of the daily threats. He also helps maintain the Emergency Contamination Control Station and the Emergency Personnel Decontamination Station, where victims of bombings are sent. The bomb disposal expert harbors such valuable skills that it is essential for him to teach civilians and other military officers how to dispose of a bomb.
The military landscape has greatly changed. Twenty-first century war presents obscure challenges, yielding demand for new skill sets. The courage and patience of bomb disposal experts are fundamental to the war effort and essential to protecting our troops. One hopes the risks they take each day when identifying and deactivating enemy weapons will ultimately help trigger global freedom.