On The Hunt For Roadside Bombs In Afghanistan

The Marines of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment — known as "America's Battalion" — have been fighting the Taliban in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province since July.

They have set up numerous outposts along the dusty roads and cornfields. And now they are moving farther south, looking to extend their area of operation and avoid the deadliest of threats just outside the wire: roadside bombs.

  • The Marines of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment — known as "America's Battalion" — have been fighting the Taliban in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province since July. Here, Lt. Col. Christian Cabaniss, the battalion commander, covers his eyes and hits the ground as a Marine helicopter lifts off from Forward Operating Base Delhi.
    Hide caption
    The Marines of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment — known as "America's Battalion" — have been fighting the Taliban in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province since July. Here, Lt. Col. Christian Cabaniss, the battalion commander, covers his eyes and hits the ground as a Marine helicopter lifts off from Forward Operating Base Delhi.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR, Slideshow produced by Coburn Dukehart/NPR
  • First Sgt. Derrick Mays is the top enlisted man in Fox Company. The Marines from 2/8 are nearing the end of their deployment, but are still busy with patrols and face daily threats from roadside bombs.
    Hide caption
    First Sgt. Derrick Mays is the top enlisted man in Fox Company. The Marines from 2/8 are nearing the end of their deployment, but are still busy with patrols and face daily threats from roadside bombs.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR, Slideshow produced by Coburn Dukehart/NPR
  • A Marine carries a metal detector near Garmsir in Helmand province in a sweep for roadside bombs. That day, Marines found and destroyed three homemade explosive devices during their six-hour patrol.
    Hide caption
    A Marine carries a metal detector near Garmsir in Helmand province in a sweep for roadside bombs. That day, Marines found and destroyed three homemade explosive devices during their six-hour patrol.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR, Slideshow produced by Coburn Dukehart/NPR
  • A Marine walks through a cornfield after word of a potential ambush was received from village locals. The corn is problematic for the Marines, as insurgents use the fields as cover to launch attacks and plant bombs.
    Hide caption
    A Marine walks through a cornfield after word of a potential ambush was received from village locals. The corn is problematic for the Marines, as insurgents use the fields as cover to launch attacks and plant bombs.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR, Slideshow produced by Coburn Dukehart/NPR
  • Improvised explosive devices, known as IEDs, are a constant threat to the Marines working in the Helmand River valley. Here, Lt. James Wende (right) keeps a watchful eye on his Marines while on patrol. Since July, bombs in Helmand province have killed 40 Marines and wounded more than 160.
    Hide caption
    Improvised explosive devices, known as IEDs, are a constant threat to the Marines working in the Helmand River valley. Here, Lt. James Wende (right) keeps a watchful eye on his Marines while on patrol. Since July, bombs in Helmand province have killed 40 Marines and wounded more than 160.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR, Slideshow produced by Coburn Dukehart/NPR
  • Local farmers harvest corn by hand in the Helmand River valley while being watched by Marines.
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    Local farmers harvest corn by hand in the Helmand River valley while being watched by Marines.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR, Slideshow produced by Coburn Dukehart/NPR
  • Marines from an explosive ordnance disposal team detonate a homemade explosive device, which was discovered near a compound outside of their base.
    Hide caption
    Marines from an explosive ordnance disposal team detonate a homemade explosive device, which was discovered near a compound outside of their base.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR, Slideshow produced by Coburn Dukehart/NPR
  • The blast crater from a homemade explosive device, after being detonated by the Marines.
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    The blast crater from a homemade explosive device, after being detonated by the Marines.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR, Slideshow produced by Coburn Dukehart/NPR
  • A Marine with Fox Company holds an M-16 round in his teeth after clearing his weapon before entering Patrol Base Hassan Abad.
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    A Marine with Fox Company holds an M-16 round in his teeth after clearing his weapon before entering Patrol Base Hassan Abad.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR, Slideshow produced by Coburn Dukehart/NPR
  • Lt. Samuel Oliver has had to keep his men together through the blazing heat of summer, ambushes and IED attacks. He constantly moves them to new locations in the Marine's area of operation.
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    Lt. Samuel Oliver has had to keep his men together through the blazing heat of summer, ambushes and IED attacks. He constantly moves them to new locations in the Marine's area of operation.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR, Slideshow produced by Coburn Dukehart/NPR
  • As the sweltering summer temperatures have dropped, rising water has brought a new set of problems as winter approaches. Here, Marines shovel piles of rocks into the flooded entrance to Patrol Base Barcha in the Helmand River valley.
    Hide caption
    As the sweltering summer temperatures have dropped, rising water has brought a new set of problems as winter approaches. Here, Marines shovel piles of rocks into the flooded entrance to Patrol Base Barcha in the Helmand River valley.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR, Slideshow produced by Coburn Dukehart/NPR
  • Oliver makes his way through mud on the perimeter of Patrol Base Barcha, south of Garmsir. The rising water comes from the surrounding cornfields and has forced Marines to fill the area with gravel and sandbags.
    Hide caption
    Oliver makes his way through mud on the perimeter of Patrol Base Barcha, south of Garmsir. The rising water comes from the surrounding cornfields and has forced Marines to fill the area with gravel and sandbags.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR, Slideshow produced by Coburn Dukehart/NPR
  • A Marine stands beneath a sunshade at Patrol Base Hassan Abad. Temperatures are close to 80 degrees during the day and 50 degrees at night, making long-range patrols more tolerable than they were at the beginning of the deployment.
    Hide caption
    A Marine stands beneath a sunshade at Patrol Base Hassan Abad. Temperatures are close to 80 degrees during the day and 50 degrees at night, making long-range patrols more tolerable than they were at the beginning of the deployment.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR, Slideshow produced by Coburn Dukehart/NPR
  • Marines share time together cooling off and joking around after patrolling the area outside of Patrol Base Hassan Abad.
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    Marines share time together cooling off and joking around after patrolling the area outside of Patrol Base Hassan Abad.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR, Slideshow produced by Coburn Dukehart/NPR

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On a recent morning, a platoon of Marines from Fox Company leaves the remote patrol base, a small patch of sandbags, camouflage tents and gravel. Within minutes they're cutting through a cornfield, walking in single file.

It could be any cornfield in Iowa, except for the Taliban radio chatter the Marines are picking up on their radio. The Marines intercept a radio transmission from the Taliban that says the militants are "ready for the guests."

Marines detonate a homemade explosive device. i i

hide captionMarines from an explosive ordnance disposal team detonate a homemade explosive device, which was discovered near a compound outside of their base.

David Gilkey/NPR
Marines detonate a homemade explosive device.

Marines from an explosive ordnance disposal team detonate a homemade explosive device, which was discovered near a compound outside of their base.

David Gilkey/NPR

"Guests" is Taliban code for the Marines. On this patrol, the Marines are searching for roadside bombs, commonly known as IEDs.

"We're lucky if we find them. Better than when they find us, I guess," says Lance Cpl. Dan Leary, from Boston.

Leary will be going back to the United States in just a few weeks, and he's worried his luck will run out.

'They're Always Watching Us'

"We had like one week where we found like 21, 22 of them. They were everywhere. We went back two days later. They were everywhere again. They were putting them — like everywhere they put them were places that we had stopped and taken cover," Leary says. "They're watching. They're always watching us."

The Taliban plant bombs everywhere — along dirt paths, in the fields and especially along the main roads. The insurgents are brazen, placing the explosives in the middle of the day.

They have either intimidated the local population, or they have support among them.

The Marines walk on patrol for about two hours, cutting through cornfields, hopping over irrigation canals and trudging along dirt paths.

At the front of the patrol, a Marine sweeps the ground with a hand-held minesweeper, a flat green, angular version of what people use on a beach to find coins.

Before long, he finds a bomb at a dirt-road intersection just outside a compound of mud houses. It's a perfect example of why they call these devices improvised. It is a 5-gallon yellow jug stuffed with a mix of fertilizer, diesel fuel and metal.

The Marines set some plastic explosives to detonate the IED. They call out a 10-second warning, and the Marines take cover in a ditch beside the dirt road. The explosion propels a wave of dirt over the squad.

The Marines talk about the unsettling feeling of walking along the trails and fields, slopping through canals, just waiting for an explosion.

'A Morale Killer'

"People would rather deal with firefights than IEDs. Like, IEDs are just a — it's a morale killer, definitely," says Lance Cpl. Raymond Grabau, from Minnesota.

Since July, 40 Marines in Helmand province have been killed, and more than 160 have been seriously wounded, most by IEDs.

But four months into their mission, the Marines are getting better at finding these crude and hidden bombs.

Another hour goes by, and the patrol detects two more IEDs. One is found by a Marine combat engineer, Pfc. Brad Sexton. But not with his metal detector.

"Yeah, I found it. Stepped on it, actually," he says.

The IED was rigged with a trigger known as a pressure plate. Just enough pressure, from a foot or a truck tire, and it detonates the buried explosive charge. Luckily for Sexton, this one had no batteries.

"Yeah, I'd probably [have] lost a leg or maybe even more. It was a metal cylinder, so I'd have had a lot of shrapnel. It would have been bad. I feel extremely lucky right now," he says.

First Sgt. Derrick Mays is the top enlisted man in Fox Company. i i

hide captionFirst Sgt. Derrick Mays is the top enlisted man in Fox Company. The Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment are nearing the end of their deployment, but are still busy with patrols and face daily threats from roadside bombs.

David Gilkey/NPR
First Sgt. Derrick Mays is the top enlisted man in Fox Company.

First Sgt. Derrick Mays is the top enlisted man in Fox Company. The Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment are nearing the end of their deployment, but are still busy with patrols and face daily threats from roadside bombs.

David Gilkey/NPR

A Marine lifts the pressure plate from the ground. It looks like a poorly wrapped Christmas present, a long rectangle covered in plastic and heavily taped.

'Everywhere You Go, It's Dangerous'

The Marines stuff the pressure plate into a backpack. It will be shipped to Bagram Air Field, where a special forensics team will look for clues — fingerprints or materials that could help identify the bomb maker. The Marines suspect that in their area, IEDs are manufactured and set by three or perhaps four insurgents.

Many Marines say they could do a better job going after the bomb makers if there weren't so many restrictions on the use of force. Some Marines say they have identified insurgents but had to wait for approval from higher-ups to call in artillery or other firepower.

Lt. Sam Oliver recalled an incident involving a man on a motorcycle who had a hand-held radio. The Marines intercepted his conversations with the insurgents.

"By the time we passed all the information, made sure [that] no, there's no civilians around — by the time that all goes through, he was gone," Oliver says.

But the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Christian Cabaniss, says the Marines have to take care not to kill innocent civilians in their pursuit of the Taliban. It makes their job more dangerous, he says, but in the long run the cautious approach will do more to gain the support of Afghan civilians.

"There is a little bit more risk upfront. Everywhere you go, it's dangerous," he says. "The reality is to be, you know, in an environment where we're completely safe. As we move, we would be destroying buildings and tree lines everywhere we went. We're not going to win the consent of the people that way, and the fight is actually going to get worse over time."

Some Marines still grumble about having to keep going out to search for IEDs. They were a lot more willing when they first arrived in Helmand province in July.

'The Unknown Is Real'

"Well, now they know that the unknown is real," says 1st Sgt. Derrick Mays, the top enlisted man in Fox Company. "And that the possibility of you getting shot or blown up could be the minute you step out on your next patrol."

But some of the Marines wonder if the patrols to find IEDs are reckless.

"You're going to have the ones that are going to probably ask that question, 'Why are we still doing this?' " says Mays. "Because we still have a job to do. And it'd be unfair to those individuals that are coming behind us to not do our job."

Fresh Marines are already arriving in Helmand, and some are following along on patrols to learn what they can from Fox Company's veterans.

Near a mud compound, Afghan adults and children squat on the ground shucking corn and glance at the advancing Marines on patrol.

Outside a small mosque, a Marine questions the local mullah about who is making the bombs.

The mullah says he knows nothing — about the bombs or the Taliban.

"How are we supposed to keep your mosque safe if you don't let us know what's going on out here?" the Marine asks, using a translator.

More than five hours after they started their foot patrol, the Marines get the signal to head back to their camp.

They peel off their helmets and gear, and grab some food. Inside their headquarters, a Marine sticks red pins on a large map, representing the IEDs found on the patrol.

And in a day or two, the Marines of the 2/8 will head out again in search of bombs and the insurgents who plant them.

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