Fear has never paralyzed me in intense situations, but on the eve of one combat foot patrol across IED-laden ground into a Taliban-controlled village, where a Reaper drone had just killed three Afghans planting a bomb in a road, it took hold.
It was my fear of the unseen -- a phobia that Hitchcock could appreciate.
"IED's are scary as hell," agreed a U.S. special operator friend, who I'll call Deuce. "Bullets are much easier to deal with."
Men I know who've survived seemingly endless Afghanistan deployments since the war started after 9/11 say there are technologies and tactics that reduce the risk of setting off hidden IEDs, which have killed more than 950 troops there and maimed 12,000 others over the past dozen years of war. One, however, argued that survival often comes down to something more basic than a gadget or a gun -- or fear.
"Dumb luck is my favorite asset," said a special operator with eight Afghanistan deployments since 2001, who I'll call Tex. Operators who spoke to ABC News asked to use pseudonyms because they are not authorized to speak to the news media about classified missions. They also fight an enemy known for making attempts to identify individual names of their special operations foes.
I'd had dumb luck, too, but thought mine might run out when I flew from a Green Beret base to a tiny outpost in Kandahar province in August 2010 and joined a combat foot patrol. I had two young daughters waiting for me back home and I was twice the age of the oldest among a handful of 10th Mountain Division cavalry scouts who were kitting up one morning with weapons, ammo, body armor, metal detectors and electronic jammers in backpacks.
The troopers were packing as much gear to defeat IEDs concealed in the terrain we were to traverse as they were carrying small arms to defeat the Taliban in a gunfight. None of these IED counter-measures were carried by special operators and troopers I had patrolled with in 2005 in eastern Afghanistan. As conventional infantry troops have withdrawn this year from Afghanistan ahead of the U.S. 2014 deadline, those taking the greatest risk of IED casualties have been Special Operations Forces fighting with Afghan troops.
An ABC News investigation that aired last month on "World News with Diane Sawyer" and "Nightline" showed how the FBI's Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center (TEDAC) at Quantico, Virginia, has collected remnants of 100,000 IEDs used against troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has worked with the military's Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) to develop things like electronic counter-measures.
The FBI's renowned skill at gathering fingerprints and other clues on bombs also helps TEDAC identify those who make these hidden weapons.
"Now we can track these guys down," said another operator, Woody, with experience from six tours involving kill/capture missions in Afghanistan.
"The successful bombmakers tend to be a small group," Woody said. "Lots of these guys do things in a certain way and if you can figure out their method and their area of operations, then you can work with JIEDDO to help neutralize that threat."
IEDs had been placed everywhere in Kandahar by 2010, well hidden in grape vines or adobe walls or invisible – by that I mean wires were rarely visible -- underneath the cracked floor of terrain that fades into the Red Desert, which "blows a dust storm every time a fly takes off," one very experienced British mercenary had forewarned.