TUPAK, Afghanistan March 8, 2010 — -- Wrapped in purple and pink string, the bomb looked more like a piñata than a deadly weapon, but its contents left no question about its intent and target.
"What you have is probably 40 pounds of ammonium nitrate aluminium mix," said Army Sgt. First Class Christopher Millward shortly after he pulled the bomb out of a mountainside dirt road. "Things of that nature usually target coalition forces."
The chemicals were placed in a water cooler like those filled with lemonade on a hot summer's day. It was the first of two IED's, improvised explosive devices, that Millward would dismantle on a recent Saturday.
Millward is an Explosive Ordnance Disposal, or EOD, technician, the military's version of the bomb squad. The physical and emotional dangers and the job were portrayed in the hit movie "The Hurt Locker," which won the Best Movie oscar Sunday night.
Millward is the humble star of the real life Hurt Locker. He has worked with bombs for more than eight years, including during two tours in Iraq and now in the eastern part of Afghanistan.
He knows the dangers of his work intimately. He was caught in two major blasts in Iraq in 2007. The first was while working on dismantling a series IED's when one exploded, hurling fragmentation to his face and slicing apart his nose.
The second was much worse.
After his team came across a cache of bomb-making material, they began to remove it from a building. On what was likely his 36th trip into the site, the material exploded and Millward was caught in the blast. Part of his foot was blown off. He placed a tourniquet on it so he did not bleed to death. Eventually, part of his right leg was amputated.
Millward, the EOD team leader, has fought hard to return to his job and says there is nothing in the world he would rather do than dismantle bombs for a living. He acknowledges that it helps to be a little crazy to choose to work around bombs. A sense of humor helps, too.
On this recent Saturday, Millward's EOD team was working with a Route Clearance Patrol (RCP) in Lagman Province. RCP had received a call from Afghan National Police that an IED was found.
Life Inside the Bomb Suit
RCP spends its days driving slowly in search of bombs. It is painstakingly slow. Shifts are sometimes 12 to 18 hours. More often than not, the patrols find IED's by driving over and detonating them. Most of the platoon members have been struck by IED's multiple times, some have been medevac'd for head trauma and other injuries. Some killed.
They drive big trucks with strange names like The Husky, The Buffalo and The Roller. Each truck has a specific role. For example, one is used for detecting the bomb and another for operating a hydraulic arm which helps dismantle the bomb.
There are some bombs that a hydraulic arms can't handle, and that's when Millward gets the call.
First, he suits up. Teammates help zip up the arms and legs of the suit, which is made of ballistic material. Then they attach the helmet. Millward's teammate SPC Brad Nelson, 21, wipes dust off the face shield to clear the view for Millward. Nelson gives him the "thumbs up" sign. Millward nods and walks towards the bomb.
Along the way, he searches for marks on the ground, wires, rocks and anything potentially out of place. It is something learned from years of experience.
A fan inside of it circulates air, but once in the bomb suit, Millward works quickly, partly because the bomb suit increases its temperature by 10 degrees for every 15 minutes inside.
He also works fast because the threat of a secondary explosion, snipers or rocket-propelled grenades is very real. Millward's team and the RCP continually search for onlookers who may be watching and waiting to explode the bomb, or perhaps those video taping the EOD's techniques to use against them in future attacks.
When Millward works on the bomb, he has no contact with his teammates. Radios could trigger an explosion. It is a solitary experience that can sometimes be scary.
"If you don't know what you're doing then, yes, it is scary," Millward says in an impromptu interview with himself. "Am I nervous? Absolutely. You don't know if it's going to detonate on you on your way down there or not. Ah, do you enjoy being in the bomb suit? Absolutely not. Ah, it's not one of those things where you go, 'Oh Boy, you know, let me get in there.' But it's a necessary evil to make the job happen."