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The shooting is largely over in the part of southern Afghanistan that NATO and Afghan forces recaptured last month. But one deadly threat remains. Taliban fighters seeded the area with thousands of homemade bombs, and military convoys run the risk of hitting them every time they patrol. New mine-resistant armored trucks have reduced the casualties from those attacks.
And as NPR's Corey Flintoff reports, many crews are surviving IED blasts uninjured and in surprisingly good humor.
Unidentified Man: What is that a...
COREY FLINTOFF: The M-ATV isn't exactly a comfortable ride. But it's turning out to be a much safer one than the armored Humvees the military is replacing in Afghanistan. It's smaller than the mine-resistant armored vehicles that were first rolled out to protect troops from bombs in Iraq. This one happens to be brand-new. That's because its predecessor was destroyed by an IED a couple of weeks ago.
Chief Warrant Officer JOSHUA SMITH (3rd Battalion, 6th Marines): We found a monster IED that day.
FLINTOFF: That's Chief Warrant Officer Joshua Smith, the gunnery officer for the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines in Marjah. His truck was leading the convoy when it hit what the Marines estimate was at least 70 pounds of homemade explosives buried in the road.
CWO SMITH: During the blast, it launched our truck up into the air. So, the back rear tire went into the hole, threw us down to the ground. The cabin filled with, you know, dust everywhere, we couldn't really see anything.
FLINTOFF: Oddly, though, Smith said he didn't really hear anything much, either.
CWO SMITH: Initially, when the blast went, it was surprisingly quiet. The vehicle inside - if you ever get in one - it's very quiet. Just the initial shock of the truck lifting up, everybody who was in there, to include the gunner, we all lifted up out of our seats. Luckily, we were all wearing our seatbelts.
(Soundbite of radio disturbance)
CWO SMITH: Now the first thing I heard was my radio start going off, of the trucks behind us asking if we're okay. And the first thing I did was I started looking, looking for my Marines in my crew. And the first thing I saw them doing was doing a knuckle bump with each other and laughing.
FLINTOFF: The Marines didn't laugh quite so hard when they got out of the truck and saw what had hit them.
CWO SMITH: The whole front left end of the vehicle had disintegrated - the springs, the wheel. I actually saw the tire. It was about 200 meters up the road from us. The hood disintegrated.
FLINTOFF: In fact, Smith says, the only thing left of the front end was parts of the engine. The vehicle is designed so that parts of the front can come apart in an explosion while the armored cabin remains intact. Smith, who read up on the specs of his truck, just as any new car buyer might, says it was an expensive couple of seconds.
CWO SMITH: It is $1.4 million. The base price is, if I'm not mistaken, $437,000, you know. So, when you burn through one of these, you're kind of, ooh, uh, sorry, taxpayers, I really am, but I'm going to need another one.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLINTOFF: He might sound a little sheepish about the damages, but Smith says the truck did what it was supposed to do and saved the lives of its crew. Smith's commander Lieutenant Colonel Brian Christmas was with the convoy when it hit the bomb, and he says the first thing he heard on the radio was the crew members' voices. They were yelling "whoo, whoo."
Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
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