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Invisible Enemy Takes Its Toll on U.S. Troops


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

The war in Iraq has made three letters an abbreviation for danger: I-E-D. The IED, or improvised explosive device, is the greatest threat to US forces in Iraq. A new Pentagon report says that 70 percent of American casualties are caused by IED attacks. NPR's Tom Bullock was embedded with US forces in Baghdad, and he sent us this report about how troops deal with the threat.

(Soundbite of Humvees)

Unidentified Man #1: Dragon-1-1-star-6.

TOM BULLOCK reporting:

A convoy of three American Humvees heads out of the relative safety of their base on the edge of Baghdad's airport.

(Soundbite of Humvees; weapons being readied)

BULLOCK: As they approach the last guard post, they ready their weapons. But their M-16s and heavy machine guns provide little protection from the most common form of insurgent attack: hidden explosives along Iraq's roads, detonated as US patrols and civilian convoys pass. It's something Lieutenant Colonel David Batchelor knows plenty about.

Lieutenant Colonel DAVID BATCHELOR (US Army): I've been hit 38 times in 11 months.

BULLOCK: And, he says, each explosion is frightening.

Lt. Col. BATCHELOR: No matter how poised you think you are, the first five seconds afterwards is pretty exciting because the sound is enormous; it gets your attention. And then there's a huge amount of dust and debris flying in the air, so if it's really close, you're encased in a lot of smoke.

BULLOCK: The explosives used range from booby-trapped mortars and rocket-propelled grenades to artillery rounds and plastic explosives. The blasts can come from almost anywhere. Bombs are hidden in walls or balconies, the undersides of overpasses and pedestrian walkways; mounted on poles and streetlights to kill the soldiers manning Humvee turrets or simply dropped in a trash bag along the highway. Colonel Batchelor says some are so well-camouflaged, even to trained eyes, they look like part of the road.

Lt. Col. BATCHELOR: In some cases, they build the median themselves, and they'll put the round inside something that looks like the concrete median. And the only thing that sticks out is a small antenna. So unless you look very closely, you can't see that, and it just looks like the curb's blowing up on you.

BULLOCK: The military calls them IEDs, improvised explosive devices, and some are powerful enough to damage the Army's heavily armored tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles. But even small bombs can be dangerous, often used not to kill but to disable a vehicle, forcing US soldiers out on the street and into a possible ambush.

Lt. Col. BATCHELOR: Most of the contacts are initiated with IEDs, even if there's going to be an RPG and small-arms fire that follows it.

BULLOCK: The risk these bombs pose for US soldiers is so significant, the Pentagon is rushing out thousands of jammers, electronic devices that disrupt radio waves in their immediate area. They're meant to block signals from cell phones, walkie-talkies, even doorbells and garage door openers that insurgents use to detonate charges. And the Army and Marines have stepped up efforts to train troops in spotting hidden bombs. Indeed, military commanders here say their best defense is a well-trained eye and constant patrols.

(Soundbite of vehicles)

BULLOCK: An American military convoy pulls to a stop in a farmer's field, more mud than crop, in the Baghdad suburb of Abu Ghraib. Charlie Company of Task Force 1-41 will call this home for the night. These men say they are luckier than some. Most of their vehicles are tanks and Bradleys, which offer protection from most IEDs, and they drive new-model Humvees with heavier armor or older ones with additional armor. Military commanders back in the States say these up-armored Humvees will help protect US troops from jerry-rigged explosives, and they are safer. But soldiers here are quick to point out only the windshield, passenger windows and doors have additional armor, leaving the rear and undercarriage of their vehicles vulnerable to roadside blasts.

Charlie Company's makeshift camp is within view of a major road linking the Iraqi capital and Fallujah. And as some of the men get ready for their night missions, a steady stream of trucks rolls past. It's a favorite target of insurgents.

(Soundbite of traffic; horn)

Unidentified Man #2: That's probably a regular...

Unidentified Man #3: That's KBR.

Unidentified Man #2: ...KBR convoy, yeah.

Unidentified Man #4: All right. Let's get ready to load up, guys.

BULLOCK: Twenty-eight-year-old Aaron Morrison leads Charlie Company's 1st Platoon. The lieutenant and his men pile into the back of two Bradleys, which rumble down a dark, deserted road in the town of Abu Ghraib. These soldiers are armed with machine guns and night-vision goggles, but they're not looking for a firefight.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

BULLOCK: As the ramp drops, they quickly and quietly take up ambush positions in a stand of trees, hoping to catch or kill any insurgent who places an explosive device on the nearby road.

Unidentified Man #5: OK, Red 2, Red 1. Go ahead and get on out of here.

(Soundbite of vehicle moving)

Unidentified Man #6: Hey, duck. Right there where that bush is, push up against that bush.

BULLOCK: Once they're in position, the Bradleys leave, and the troops watch and wait. Lieutenant Morrison says they picked this spot because it's seeing some of the most powerful IEDs in Iraq.

Lieutenant AARON MORRISON (US Army): Oh. Oh, yeah, yeah, this sector's been notorious for having really super IEDs that are just--they actually scare you.

BULLOCK: Insurgents here have begun using shaped charges, building bombs that focus the explosion into a single point. One with just a few hundred pounds of plastic explosives can damage a tank or destroy a Bradley. They'd rip a Humvee apart and cause casualties for American and Iraqi troops and civilians nearby.

(Soundbite of traffic)

BULLOCK: Sergeant Brian Moore of 1st Platoon peeks out from his hiding place anytime he sees motion. Through the green-hued image of his night scope, the 25-year-old from Maryland looks intently for anything that might mean a bomb has just been placed.

Sergeant BRIAN MOORE (US Army): A quick, sudden movement, like tossing something out of a window, maybe a car stopping, some people getting out doing some suspicious activity, watching the road and having somebody come up, just walk out from the wood line, like where we're at, and just place something in the road and then just casually walk off. That's all we're looking for.

BULLOCK: 1st Platoon spends two hours hidden in the trees, but the men see nothing, except for a couple of cars breaking curfew and an Iraqi man who comes out of a nearby house to check his generator, oblivious to the US soldiers in his back yard.

(Soundbite of vehicle)

BULLOCK: At the end of their shift, 1st Platoon piles back in their Bradleys and heads back to camp, and another platoon prepares to go out.

(Soundbite of vehicle; dog barking)

BULLOCK: As early prayers are called out from a nearby mosque, Sergeant First Class Dave Schumacher and men from 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company 2-14 Infantry, take up positions in a partially constructed house overlooking the same stretch of road. US officials say Iraq's insurgents are extremely adaptable watching American forces, changing tactics whenever US troops counter their efforts. First Sergeant Schumacher says some insurgents modify their cars, allowing them to place IEDs and quickly get away.

Sergeant First Class DAVE SCHUMACHER (US Army): The newest thing they have now is they put a hole in the floorboard, they just drop them down, and they continue on without even slowing or stopping down, nothing.

BULLOCK: 2nd Platoon also comes up empty. They see no suspicious activity and make no arrests. But as the sun comes up and his platoon prepares for their next mission, an explosion in the distance.

(Soundbite of explosion)

BULLOCK: And then a radio transmission confirming the attack.

(Soundbite of radio transmission)

Unidentified Man #7: ...returning fire. There's just been a loud or a big explosion in the vicinity...

BULLOCK: Sergeant Todd Stoner of 2nd Platoon worries this attack could be particularly bad.

Sergeant TODD STONER (US Army): The day before we came out in this sector, Bradley was driving around and they hit an IED. The IED was so big that it actually flipped the Bradley in the air. I don't think anyone died in it, but all passengers were, like, seriously wounded. It literally lifted the entire Bradley off the ground.

BULLOCK: Sergeant Stoner listens closely, waiting for details of today's attack.

(Soundbite of radio transmission)

Unidentified Man #8: One of the tanks hit an IED in the median...

Sgt. STONER: Ooh.

Unidentified Man #8: ...and it hit one of my soldiers. I don't know if it hit one of my soldiers. We're bringing him back to ...(unintelligible) base site ...(unintelligible)...

BULLOCK: Sergeant Stoner and three other members of 2nd Platoon sit quietly as the radio reports continue. Then slowly the soldiers start talking about how soon they'll be back home. Tom Bullock, NPR News, Baghdad.

(Soundbite of radio transmission)

Unidentified Man #9: Southwest corner, around the prison...

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Morning EditionAll Things Considered
Tom Bullock decided to trade the khaki clad masses and traffic of Washington DC for Charlotte in 2014. Before joining WFAE, Tom spent 15 years working for NPR. Over that time he served as everything from an intern to senior producer of NPR’s Election Unit. Tom also spent five years as the senior producer of NPR’s Foreign Desk where he produced and reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Haiti, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon among others. Tom is looking forward to finally convincing his young daughter, Charlotte, that her new hometown was not, in fact, named after her.