The Real-Life Hurt Locker: Battling IEDs in Afghanistan

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Max Becherer / Polaris

Gunnery Sergeant Matthew Small, a member of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team working in Marjah, Afghanistan, surveys a pathway used by Marines in the region.

Gunnery Sergeant Matthew "Gunney" Small, 32, has a mustache, a thick Boston accent and a tendency to pepper his instructions with curse words. In a single day, Small investigated the site of an improvised explosive device (IED) blast, engaged in a 30-min. firefight with insurgents, blew up a bridge and then swept a road for more IEDs. On the way home, he paused for an intravenous drip — he was dehydrated — and then, after a 12-hour mission, called it a day.

It's not quite The Hurt Locker, the Oscar-winning movie that Small used expletives to express his disapproval of. But Small's men are the kind of guys that the film was based on: an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team, heavy on the explosions but without the Hollywood theatrics or astronaut-like bomb suits.

Two- and three-man teams like Small's occupy a unique but critical spot in the Afghan war because, according to, IEDs have already taken the lives of at least 134 NATO forces this year. In Taliban strongholds across Helmand and Kandahar provinces, where a 30,000-strong U.S. troop surge is under way and fighting is intensifying, Small's commander, Warrant Officer Ronnie Wilkins, likens the job to the firefighters of the Marine Corps, with his teams spread out across Marjah, currently one of southern Afghanistan's busiest battle zones. Mostly they're called on to inspect suspected IED sites and dispose of whatever they find. Other times, they're called in to blow up bridges or buildings used by insurgents. "They said if you take this bridge out, the Taliban won't come," explains 1st Platoon commander Lieutenant Carl Quist as Small's team attaches 20 lb. of explosives to a footbridge believed to give the Taliban access to a farming village. "We have all our gear, tools and equipment staged and ready at all times," Wilkins says from his tent at Camp Hanson.

Far too often — about 40% of the time, Small says — they're called on to do postblast assessments. "More so than ever before in Iraq, the guys on the ground have so much more to worry about," Small says. "These guys are walking around, day in and day out, on foot. They have to worry about the small-arms engagements ... [IEDs] are buried, and the key indicators don't stick out as much as they have in the past."

Since its arrival in Helmand province in mid-April, the 1st EOD Company has lost one team member on the job and sent two others home, one of whom had to have both his legs amputated. Four other shrapnel wounds and multiple concussions later, the 12-man platoon still has five months left in its deployment. "Probably the most dangerous part out here is locating the IEDs," says Small. "And that's not always us. It's whoever is out on patrol that day."

To mitigate the risk, EOD units use a varying combination of robots, dogs, metal detectors and sensing equipment built into their vehicles. Even then, efforts are never foolproof. And sometimes, on treks over several miles in 115°-plus heat, the gear just isn't practical. "The areas that we're walking around in — they're not trafficable by these vehicles. So that in and of itself takes away anything with any weight — the robotics, any of the larger equipment, the bomb suit — it's a sheer weight issue," says Small. "We try our best to pack as light as we can and keep up with these guys in their movements. If we travel slow, we put those guys in danger."

Earlier on the day of Small's 12-hour mission, EOD went ahead of the squad to check a bridge — the site of two previous IED blasts — before the rest of the Marines crossed. Twenty meters away, Small was on his hands and knees, scraping at the dirt with no Hurt Locker–style suit on. (The Marines too have only derogatory terms for the outfits.) "I can tell you there is nothing in this hole right now," he told the squad leader, after several minutes of assessment. "But I'm willing to bet it's a predug hole for an IED," he added.

Most of the Explosive Ordnance Marines attached to the 3rd Battalion 6th Marines in Marjah have served multiple tours in Iraq, where, as in Afghanistan, IEDs — often sophisticated in design — have been the largest killer of U.S. troops. Still, they say Afghanistan is different terrain: more rural, more impoverished and presenting far more primitive materials for insurgents to work with. Ironically, Wilkins says, that makes finding and dealing with IEDs here more of a challenge. Dirt roads and plowed fields make IEDs easy to plant. And a heavy reliance on household items like water jugs, fertilizer and saw blades — as opposed to the conventional munitions like the old rockets and artillery shells used in Iraq — make Afghan IEDs difficult to detect. The EOD teams say they're always racing to adapt to evolving insurgent techniques. "It's a constant game of cat and mouse — them trying to beat us and us trying to beat them," says Staff Sergeant Spencer Meyer at Camp Hanson.

The 3/6 gets about half of their IED tips from local sources, and commanders make the call on whether a tip should be investigated. But, says Staff Sergeant Zach Clayton, an EOD team leader in Marjah, "Anywhere from 50% to 75% of the time, a tip is a trap." And, he adds with an ironic smile, "The Taliban are the only ones who use the tip line."

Often IED attacks and IED site investigations are followed by small-arms fire. "They like to initiate the small-arms ambushes with IEDs just because it causes so much chaos," says Small. "Especially if they happen to get a legitimate strike — like they hit one of our guys."

After Small investigated the previous day's blast site, where an IED had killed one Marine and injured two others on foot patrol, the Marines moved into a neighboring compound to question the owner. Like most residents the Marines confront, the man claimed to know nothing of the attack or of a local Taliban presence. But as the Marines trod back into the field, they heard the first pops of gunfire, followed a minute later by an encore, then steady bursts of machine-gun fire from two directions. The ambush sent the Marines running along the edge of a field to take up positions in irrigation ditches and a nearby compound. Two Cobra helicopters had to be called in to provide security before Small could continue with his mission.

At the end of a grueling day, Small's team hadn't found or defused any IEDs. But Small had investigated three suspected sites and surrounding areas. "I would rather do a thousand false calls that yield no find than do that one postblast."