The Men Who Risk It All to Hunt Explosives in Iraq

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Hear Corey Flintoff's original report on the U.S. Army's Ninth Engineers:

Last month, NPR Baghdad Correspondent Corey Flintoff spent time with some U.S. Army engineers whose nightly mission is to find and defuse improvised explosive devices (IED's) in the mean streets of the Iraqi capital. This week, Flintoff learned that three of those men have since been killed in the line of duty.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

NPR's Corey Flintoff has been reporting from Baghdad for the last month, and he'd like to update us on one of the stories he's filed. Here's his reporter's notebook.

COREY FLINTOFF: I've been trying to write this for days, trying to think of a way to make an epilogue to a story I did last month. It was about an Army engineers platoon that patrols at night looking for roadside bombs. An epilogue to a story about roadside bombs, you can probably guess what's coming, so I won't prolong the suspense.

The epilogue to a story about bombs is that one blows up. One blew up on Christmas night, a big one, big enough to rip open a heavily armored truck and kill three soldiers inside.

I'm not the kind of reporter who believes in objectivity in a situation like this. The best I can do is be aware of what I'm feeling and try not to let it affect the story I'm telling. So I can say right off the bat that I like these guys. They surprised me with their maturity and professionalism, the recruiting-poster qualities the Army bigwigs want you to report about instead of the grim and dirty work of fighting the war. But they were also the 20-something slacker dude who'd be tooling around at night in a pickup or a low rider if they were at home.

John Bubeck had held a series of jobs as a cook before he joined the Army. On his MySpace page, he said he was on a long term business trip to the Middle East and credited his talent as a BS artist for getting him his sergeant's stripes.

I didn't learn this from him, by the way. I looked up the story that the Philadelphia Inquirer did about him after talking to his mom in Collegeville, Pennsylvania.

What I learned from Sergeant Bubeck was how to mount an additional spotlight on the bumper of an armored truck. It takes a lot of patience, a string of sardonic jokes and a monster power drill. As it happened, Bubeck didn't go on the patrol I was on. He got assigned to do something else. His boss, Lieutenant McPhayle(ph), told me that was too bad because Bubeck was totally into the job and a funny guy to ride with besides.

(Soundbite of motor vehicle)

Lieutenant McPHAYLE (Army Corps of Engineers): (Unintelligible).

The original story wasn't hard to do. McPhayle basically narrated as we rode along, showed me what we were looking for and what we found.

Lt. McPHAYLE: It's a very impersonal way of saying (unintelligible) dead bodies. I mean, it's a murdered person.

FLINTOFF: The body of a man who'd been shot to death and dumped face down in the trash by a highway overpass.

Unidentified Man: No, that concrete thing, I don't see any wires or anything. Man, that's a small dude, too, (unintelligible). I hope that's not a kid.

FLINTOFF: I knew, of course, that if we didn't find a bomb, that line would be the heart of the story. McPhayle spoke for the whole patrol. That's what they were like, soldiers and a bunch of decent guys.

The two men killed along with Sergeant Bubeck were Specialist Aaron Preston, who was 29, and Private First Class, who was 19. To tell the truth, I can't say whether I even met them. I shook hands with a lot of the guys. They were very polite to a reporter who was older than their fathers, but after a while, the names just became a blur.

Their family members said both of them were heroes. I suppose the families of 3,000 other men and women would say the same. These guys, Bubeck, Preston, Nelson, just happen to be the ones who are haunting me.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Baghdad.

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