'The Pirates' Bomb hunters

John A Silkstone

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On patrol with the roadside bomb hunters in Afghanistan

The sun was dipping behind the mountains and the US convoy was just leaving the beautiful but deadly Tangi Valley when the alert sounded over the radio in Lieutenant Christopher George’s armoured vehicle: “IED! IED!”

The young officer’s face fell. For hours, his team of roadside bomb searchers had successfully guided the convoy through one of the most hostile places in Afghanistan — and now this. Somewhere behind him, a vehicle had been hit because his men had missed an improvised explosive device (IED) buried in the road. “This is one of my biggest fears,” he said.

Lieutenant George, 25, and just three years out of college, leads 12 Alpha Platoon — two dozen combat engineers who call themselves “The Pirates” and have a uniquely dangerous mission.

In nine months, working from Forward Operating Base Airborne in Wardak province, this close-knit group has found more than 50 roadside bombs — the Taleban’s most lethal and effective weapon. Around 20 of these have exploded. All but two of the men have been blown up in their vehicles — some two or three times. Five have been flown home or given desk jobs because of serious injury, a dozen have qualified for Purple Hearts, and most have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Their work is also well-recognised further up the chain of command: “What they do every day is humbling, awe-inspiring,” says Lieutenant Colonel Kimo Gallahue, commanding officer of the 10th Mountain Division’s 2-87 infantry battalion to which The Pirates are attached.

On this particular day, their mission is to lead a supply convoy to a US outpost in the heart of Tangi Valley — an infamous insurgent stronghold that links Wardak and Logar provinces. An entire Soviet division was ambushed and destroyed here in the 1980s. US soldiers have frequently been attacked, and last year one was dismembered after being ambushed.

The Taleban have reportedly killed local children just for talking to the Americans. Afghan lorry drivers employed by the US military have sometimes refused to enter a place dubbed Death Valley or IED Alley.

Before leaving Airborne, the convoy’s soldiers huddle in prayer. “Lord, we ask you to be with us today,” intones Specialist Charlie Bunch, 23, from Ohio. “Be with us as we go to Tangi, and be with us on these dangerous roads.” Nearby are the charred wrecks of several Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs) that were hit by recent IEDs.

The Pirates stay aloof, more concerned to protect than be protected, but they have their own superstitions. Lieutenant George, for example, wears a bracelet made with the command wire of a bomb that destroyed his vehicle in Tangi last summer — he refused to be flown out for medical treatment because: “I kinda love my guys and wanted to be with them.” Some do not tell their families what they do.

At 7am — with Led Zeppelin playing on their headphones — The Pirates lead the convoy of nearly 30 armoured vehicles and lorries out of Airborne and rumble south through the desert on the Kabul to Kandahar highway, forcing all oncoming traffic off the road.

The Pirates’ vehicles possess a formidable array of high-tech equipment for detecting hidden bombs, but there is no substitute for men on the ground. At known hot spots they dismount and walk, scouring the roadside for the “snail trails” that conceal command wires.

Progress is painfully slow. The Pirates shoot the lock off a hut to search it. They question and photograph some Afghans loitering by a culvert beneath the road. The convoy detours around a blown-up bridge and passes the crater where a bomb destroyed a Pirate MRAP five days earlier, wounding three men. The Pirates say the IEDs have become steadily bigger and more sophisticated, with some now containing 300lb of explosives.

It takes three hours to cover the 18-odd miles to the Tangi turn-off. The convoy then heads east through a low pass and suddenly enters a veritable Garden of Eden.

Between barren brown mountains lies a breathtaking lush green valley. A river meanders between apple orchards, fields and pretty, mud-walled villages. “Welcome to Tangi,” says Lieutenant George. “It’s like getting kissed by the devil.”

The Pirates now lead the convoy on foot. They check every bridge and culvert. They fan out through the apple trees and fields laced with irrigation channels, searching for command wires, mines and snipers.

It is a lovely autumn day, the air is scented with ripe fruit, and the beauty is seductive, but their caution is imperative. The road through this perilous paradise is riddled with IED craters. The villagers simply stare at the convoy, exuding hostility — not even the children wave.

The US military has imposed a night-time curfew to foil the bomb planters. “People here hate us,” says Specialist Jonathan Moody, 22, who was blown up in Tangi last May — he remembers being ejected from the gun turret and re-entering it upside down.

It takes two more hours to cover the seven miles to Combat Outpost Tangi, which resembles a Wild West fort. It has walls of huge sand-filled sacks instead of wooden palings, watchtowers, gun emplacements and a Stars and Stripes fluttering over rows of khaki tents.

As the convoy unloads food, water and ammunition, The Pirates hear that the Afghan National Army has found a bomb a mile down the road. They hurry to the spot, only to find that insurgents removed the IED when the Afghan soldiers inexplicably left to report it. All that remains is a command wire leading to a nearby cemetery and a rocket-propelled grenade that The Pirates blow up.

The convoy leaves again at 3.40pm. They want to be out of Tangi before dark, and all goes well until the convoy reaches the head of the valley. There the lead vehicles spot a man ducking into the last trees before the land reverts to desert. A minute later comes the call: “IED! IED!”

The convoy halts. The Pirates rush back, checking for ambushes and secondary bombs. Then they discover their good fortune. The primer exploded as an MRAP passed over it, but failed to detonate the 75lb of explosive buried beneath in a blue plastic container. “It’s God’s good will,” exclaims a soldier.

That The Pirates had missed the bomb was hardly their fault. It was buried deep in the filled-in crater of a previous bomb, and the 25-metre command wire was concealed in the bed of a stream. “You can’t find everything,” said Lieutenant George as the convoy drove on to the safety of Airborne.

“We frigging do our best. My guys bust their arses every day to find these IEDs . . . I couldn’t ask for a better group and I’m dead serious about that.”

This time the Taleban were foiled, but they could still claim victory of a sort. The 50-mile round trip took 12 hours, and required a huge amount of manpower and equipment — all to resupply one tiny outpost.
 

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