GIs Survive Hidden Bombs With Gadgets, Guts and 'Dumb Luck'

From soldiers braving IEDs to an FBI lab that learns the bombs' secrets.

Dec. 3, 2013 — -- 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 As conventional infantry troops have withdrawn this year from Afghanistan ahead of the U.S. 2014 deadline, those taking the greatest risk of IED casualties have been Special Operations Forces fighting with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.

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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.

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.

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