In Iraq, improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, remain the principle cause of death and injury among U.S. soldiers. NPR reporter Jamie Tarabay learned first hand about the IED threat Tuesday as she traveled with American troops in Diyala province.
First Lt. Douglas McGregor, 24, of Wilsonville, Ore., leads a convoy of supply vehicles in Iraq. His team had just finished delivering supplies to the newly built outpost in the village of Shakarat, and was on its way back to base. Just 10 minutes into the journey, the first IEDs were spotted. McGregor got out to check, and an ordnance team was called in.
A boom. An hour later, another loud boom — and McGregor returned.
"That would have killed us," he said. "It was a land mine right in the middle of the road. It was command-wired and pressure-plated, so whether he set it off or we set it off, it would have been a bad day."
Sunni insurgents have long controlled this part of Iraq. They elude capture by slipping into the nearby palm groves and vineyards. Recently, U.S. and Iraqi forces began operations to clear the area of al-Qaida-linked insurgents. McGregor says the IEDs are often placed in the same spot daily.
"They're pretty hasty setting them in the same holes," he said.
We reached the spot where the first IED exploded; a massive gap in the middle of the rocky road was all that was left.
"Go slow ... all right, slow down, keep going, keep going. OK, stop," McGregor directed. "That's where it was. Hey stop! What the? Go! Get out of here, you're right over the hole! We had to check over the hole to make sure they didn't put something else in it."
The soldiers say it's hard to know what to look for. Everything — and everyone — looks suspicious. Even children. McGregor got news on his radio and turned to the gunner to warn him.
"Hey, we got rock throwers on the left in an alleyway — just stay down. Just stay down and watch your head, there's rock throwers on the left. These little kids they're waving, but they probably hate you, actually," he said. "Hey, grab some candy for the rock throwers, throw some peanuts at them."
The convoy then rolled into a deserted part of the village. The shops looked like mechanic garages, but they were all shuttered. It was eerily vacant, so close to the place where moments earlier children had played. McGregor pointed out a curious yellow trash can.
Then a bomb went off. The explosion showered metal and sand into the Humvee, leaving those inside coughing. But the vehicle kept going. McGregor ordered the convoy to continue, his tone unchanged. Contact with an IED, he called it.
The soldiers tried to inject some humor into the moment by counting how many IEDs they'd each encountered.
One cracked, "Hey throw some peanuts at these kids. Maybe they'll stop setting up IEDs."
By the end of the journey, all vehicles in the convoy were still intact.
The gunner wondered aloud in jest if he'd been hit in the head. Reminding him that things could have been much worse, McGregor told him to quit whining.