DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
This week, four US soldiers riding in a Humvee in Iraq were killed by what military analysts call the soldier's worst enemy: the improvised explosive device, or homemade terrorist bomb. These IEDs, as they're known, have killed hundreds of soldiers. NPR's Phillip Davis reports from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, where the Navy is teaching troops to detect and disarm these devices.
PHILLIP DAVIS reporting:
Miles inside the huge base in the Florida panhandle in a patch of forest sits what appears to be a small, abandoned town with a bank, a post office and a library. A blue van is parked outside the small gas station with two pumps.
(Soundbite of explosion)
DAVIS: Suddenly the van explodes, spewing wheels, shattered glass and metal over what seems to be a quarter of an acre. It was done on purpose as part of scenario teaching military bomb disposal experts how to detect and remotely detonate the kind of hidden homemade bombs that are bedeviling US troops in Iraq. Lieutenant David Blauser is the director of this new school, called the Advance Improvised Explosive Device detection school. He explains what an IED is.
Lieutenant DAVID BLAUSER (Director, Advance Improvised Explosive Device Detection School): Really, it's up to the imagination of the builder. So it can be almost anything. Currently in Iraq and Afghanistan you'll see they're modifying munitions and using those. But it could be, you know, ANFO bombs, like you might have seen in Oklahoma City. That was an ANFO bomb. So really, it's left to the imagination of the bomb builder.
DAVIS: According to icasualities.org, which has traced and analyzed all 2,100-plus American fatalities during the Iraq War, at least 678 deaths, more than a quarter of the total, have come from IEDs. And the number is rising. In October 2004, 13 soldiers were killed by IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan. In October of this year, 59 were killed by IEDs, according to the group.
The 10 buildings at the facility, new and freshly whitewashed, look more like suburban Pensacola than they do the chaotic urban environment of Baghdad. But one instructor standing inside an echoing cinder-block building made to look like an airport ticket office, insists that the buildings are a big improvement over traditional explosives training out on a firing range.
Unidentified Instructor: Putting a device in the middle of an open field--now you just have a device in the middle of an open field. But by putting it in a building or a facility that's meant to represent something, just adds to the realism and it makes--it may change their thought process a little bit.
DAVIS: And maybe make them a little bit paranoid, too. Down the road from the ticket agency is a building constructed as a library. It even has books inside, a bunch of old biographies. A backpack sits on a table. It's a threat. In this scenario, no one approaches the backpack. Instead, from the safety of a remote vehicle, the techs deploy what they call a `bomb bot.'
(Soundbite of a bomb bot in motion)
DAVIS: It's a 500-pound version of the wheeled robots used by civilian bomb squads. The techs manipulate the robot's video camera and hydraulic arm, grab the backpack and take it outside. There it can be X-rayed or otherwise probed to see if it's actually an explosive. Lieutenant Blauser says the scenarios have been taken from conditions soldiers have encountered in Iraq.
Lt. BLAUSER: Quite a few of our scenarios are from real world incidents, both stateside and overseas. So when the teams see the problem, we can tell them, `Hey, this actually happened and how you did it is how they did it' or `You did it a bit differently.'
DAVIS: Blauser acknowledges that conditions in Iraq change constantly and it'll be a challenge to make this new school keep pace with an ever-evolving insurgent threat. Phillip Davis, NPR News.
ELLIOTT: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
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