The metal detectors work on pressure-plate IEDs -- if there is enough detectable metal where wooden boards separated by rubber from old tires meet to make an electric contact and complete a circuit. The jammers work if an IED is command-detonated using cordless or cell phones. I knew, at least, that the jammers were great at zapping my BlackBerry.
The scout platoon in Kandahar had lost five guys killed while on vehicle and foot patrols in just a couple of months since arriving in a remote corner of the desert province. Kandahar was a bleak, flat and violent place, and I was "bound to get a good tan and maybe lose a few pounds," the mercenary I knew had wisecracked.
A young, thrice-wounded Canadian trooper told me the Taliban liked packing explosives into cooking pots and using scrounged metal -- knives, forks, belt buckles -- as homemade shrapnel. My fear grew in the hours before the foot patrol.
"Nobody is demanding this of me," I thought, weighing the risks from the unseen bombs, and seeing my babies' precious little faces when I closed my eyes the night before. "There isn't a gun to my head. I don't have to do this."
But my fear and apprehension dissolved at sunrise, when I considered that those young and inspiring American troopers didn't have to do this, either.
They were all volunteers facing the Taliban's proliferating IEDs, including the 19-year-old from the Louisiana bayou his buddies called "Savvy," who made up a personal trauma kit for me to carry -- tourniquets and bandages -- and offered to take point in front of the others just because his four whole months of experience facing this threat might actually save our lives.
Savvy had just returned to his platoon from the hospital at Kandahar Airfield after earning his second Purple Heart from an IED blast. He'd been knocked down on his keister by another one, when a U.S. sniper he'd just spoken to stepped on a pressure-plate IED on patrol and was blown in half -- fatally -- by the hidden bomb underfoot.
What's the best way to not get hit by an IED?
"Helicopters," Deuce replied. He's survived 10 deployments in Afghanistan. "Helos to the objective means you don't have to drive or walk."
"But -- real talk -- if you and I are on dismounted [foot] patrol, I'm going to ensure that we follow an Afghan commando. Step where he steps. It's his country," Deuce said.
In spite of the lousy odds, I hoofed it on patrol with Savvy and his battle buddies. We had no Afghans to follow who might be adept at avoiding the things on their home turf that go boom. Never in my life had I treaded so carefully, with my eyes laser-focused on the feet in front of me, to ensure I walked where eight guys had already left footprints in the silty dust.
Stomping single file behind the young specialist, we all made it to the nearby village that the drone had attacked and got back to base safely by traveling a new route, staying off trails and roadways, and even crossing a sewage-choked stream rather than over a small foot bridge that might have been rigged to explode. Once back in camp, my anxiety subsided as the backpack jammers were switched off and my Blackberry lit up.
Few bet their lives on gizmos "downrange and outside the wire," however. "Honestly, I'm not even sure if our jammers were on half the time," Tex laughed.
What worked best for Tex over a dozen years of combat operations wasn't technology so much as staying off roads and varying his team's route to and from an objective -- unless there was only one route in and out. The most reliable counter-measure to defeat IEDs was often gut instinct from experience, he said.
"And prevention," Tex added.
"Yeah -- lethal targeting of IED makers and cash payouts to the locals," he said.