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Bomb Technicians Lead Fight Against IEDs

By Ian Graham
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 15, 2009 – Improvised explosive devices have forced a change in modern combat. Deadly weapons can come in the form of a five-gallon bucket, a package in the mail or a filled-in pothole in the middle of the road.

No one knows that better than Air Force Staff Sgt. Armando Robles and Airman 1st Class Rileigh Woodward, members of a military “bomb squad.” Robles and Woodward discussed IEDs and other threats in Afghanistan during an Oct. 8 “DoD Live” bloggers roundtable. The two serve as joint expeditionary tasked airmen assigned to the 755th Air Expeditionary Group at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan.

Airmen on the ground in explosive ordnance disposal units are scattered across Afghanistan in teams, searching for and dismantling explosive devices before they can harm anyone. They use unique tools, from multi-million-dollar robots and mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles to water and plastic bottles -- anything that can be used is being used -- to defeat these threats.

Robles and Woodward work in and around Bagram Airfield, going out on calls when potential threats are reported, similar to a city fire department. But the battle against IEDs, they said, is much more than driving around and disposing of potentially harmful explosives.

“It’s part of our mission to maintain evidence integrity,” Woodward said. “We don’t just go out there and haphazardly blow something up. We want to bring back evidence and give it to appropriate units, so they can continue their portion of the counter-IED mission.”

A big part of the focus in fighting bomb-makers is winning the “hearts and minds” of the local Afghans. Seeking out the builders, the people teaching those builders and those who support the process of building IEDs in general are crucial to defeating the IED threat, the airmen noted.

“We’re trying to get the people, the industry, the villages, the elders and telling them this whole IED threat isn’t benefitting anybody,” Woodward said. “It covers a lot more than just what we as EOD technicians are going out and … defeating devices. It covers a very broad spectrum of getting [Afghans] to not support the guys that are making [explosives].”

In that sense, the anti-IED mission is more like a crime investigation than a traditional military operation.

The airmen said many inroads have been made into catching bomb-makers in Afghanistan using crime scene investigation techniques. Biometric data gathered from defused or undetonated explosives helps to track suspects, and analysis of the technology used helps to create profiles for unidentified bomb builders.

“Depending on the terrain, the area, and the time of year, … you’ll see that some areas are using the same pieces and parts, or using different pieces, but they’re built the same way,” Woodward said.

The database of information isn’t as big as it could be, he said, but many arrests have been made and bomb-makers are being identified thanks to patterns in the information EOD technicians, intelligence officers and other units gather.

But while contributing to an arrest or defusing an IED is satisfying, the two airmen said, it’s hardly the most rewarding part of their job. They said contributing to their fellow servicemembers’ safety is a big part of it.

Looking at the big picture, Robles said, reminds him why he works in an EOD unit.

“It’s usually afterwards, when I find out the impact … that I see the reward, [and] I feel it and reap the benefits in that sense,” he said. “The greatest benefit [to me] is knowing that as a team or a unit, we come back alive and uninjured.”

(Ian Graham works in the Defense Media Activity’s emerging media directorate.)

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