Inside the Baghdad Bombsquad

February 6th, 2006 - by admin

Noah Shachtman / Wired – 2006-02-06 08:52:36

(November 1, 2005) — After months of preparation, and three weeks in a warzone, my entire trip to Iraq has been boiled down to 29 hours. But that day-and-a-smidge shift with “Team Mayhem,” a US Army bomb squad, winds up being pretty damn action-packed.

Booby traps, smoking mortars, rooftop gunfire, suspected truck bombs, roadside explosives, and an idiosyncratic little robot named “Rainman” all figure prominently in the story, which appears in this month’s Wired magazine. Mostly, though, the article is about the battle of wits that’s being fought between high-tech US military squads and low-tech insurgent bombers. Improvised explosives have become the deadliest threat to soldiers and civilians alike in Iraq. So the winner of this fight largely determines the fate of the counterinsurgency.

But getting a clear picture of this tangle has been tough; military bomb squads, or “explosive ordnance disposal” units, are ordinarily shrouded in secrecy, operating in shadows. This is one of the first times they’ve allowed a reporter in for an extended stay.

You can take a look at 140 pictures I shot during my time in Iraq. And here are some reports on American troops’ morale, and my online diaries from Iraq. Enjoy…

Capt. Greg Hirschey, the commanding officer of the 717th Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Company (which inlcludes Team Mayhem), just dropped me a line. Two of his sergeants, he said, “were hit with an IED yesterday with injuries to their security element. I just walked into the shop from an incident and received word that our Air Force augmentation team was hit with an IED just minutes ago… It is hectic right now once again. Seems like it never stops.”

The Baghdad Bomb Squad
Noah Shachtman / Wired

Mark Palmer isn’t supposed to start work for another five hours. But someone has just reported a suspicious package in front of the Abu Ghraib prison, and the bomb disposal unit that the staff sergeant’s team is scheduled to relieve has a stalled Humvee – common in Baghdad’s scorching July heat. Palmer’s commander, head of the US Army’s 717th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company, asks him to go check it out. “Sure thing,” Palmer says, reaching for his body armor. “Too easy.”

He steps out of the 717th’s workshop, a corrugated plastic shelter in Camp Victory, part of the sprawling American military headquarters next to the Baghdad airport. Behind him, the other members of his squad – sergeant Chris Sager and specialist Jon Ferraro – fall in, and they all pile into a gray-green Humvee.

Stickers on the front bumper read Team Mayhem, the nickname this three-man team of bomb chasers gave themselves. Across the top of the windshield, above the sun visor, Ferraro has scrawled in black ink: Yes, they deserve to die and I hope they burn in hell – Samuel Jackson. It’s a line from the film A Time to Kill.

Team Mayhem is joined by three more Humvees carrying a dozen security troops from the Louisiana National Guard. They convoy for half an hour, passing slow-moving donkey carts and palm trees wrapped in razor wire. Finally they reach a rubble-strewn intersection of two highways that some US troops call the Death X.

For months, it has been the site of a stream of attacks with improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Insurgents bury them under mounds of trash, tuck them inside the rims of discarded tires, stuff them into concrete medians. But this latest one, Palmer sees, looks like it was left without any guile — a square white bundle dropped right in the middle of the highway.

They stop about 150 yards from the package, and the guardsmen fan out to keep the locals away. Sager and Ferraro pull the fourth member of their team from the trunk of the Humvee: a 3-foot-tall, occasionally reliable robot with antennas, a spindly arm, and tanklike treads. They call it Rainman.

In the backseat of the truck, Ferraro settles in front of a small monitor and starts yanking at a pair of joysticks, maneuvering the bot toward the bundle. He sees on the screen that it’s wrapped in an embroidered baby’s blanket. Rainman tugs and prods it with a crablike claw. After a few minutes, something falls out.

“We got some Dockers,” Ferraro yells, as Rainman delicately separates a pair of trousers from the blanket. False alarms like this happen here every day – often several times a day. “I have the pants! Repeat: I have the pants!” Ferraro crows, flicking one of the joysticks to make Rainman dance a spinning jig.

A pair of mangy red dogs wander out from the rubble and start gnawing at the blanket. Moving slowly against the heat, everyone in the convoy crawls back into the Humvees, and Team Mayhem rolls out. Palmer and the guys in the 717th tend to call every deployment easy, no matter how messy things get. But this time it looks like Palmer was right to be nonchalant.

Then a voice blares from the radio: “Get down! Get down!” Ferraro looks through the barely armored window of the Humvee and sees an artillery shell buried in the middle lane. It’s wired to a radio. Maybe the bundle of pants was a coincidence, or maybe it was bait intended to lure soldiers into the open – hoaxes are common. Either way, Team Mayhem is now looking at a jury-rigged bomb.

Palmer likes his job. He’s a pug-nosed ex-infantryman who has spent three years with the 717th. Along the way he has learned to play a little blues guitar and gradually built up an encyclopedic knowledge of things that go boom. In many ways, his life in Iraq isn’t all that different from the one he and his crew have back at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

The 717th is an isolated, close-knit group of 20 men and one woman, a third the size of most companies. No one salutes. And the assignment has a firehouse rhythm — sleepy lulls punctuated by manic bursts. It can’t be a coincidence that DVDs of Denis Leary’s firefighter drama Rescue Me are so popular in the shop.

But if ordnance disposal is the military’s rough equivalent of firefighting, defusing bombs in Baghdad is like doing the job in a city of arsonists. Analysts estimate that improvised bombs have caused more than half of the roughly 16,000 American casualties, and thousands more among Iraqi civilians, since the war began. So explosive ordnance disposal has become one of the most important assignments on the battlefield.

It’s also an assignment that has changed radically in this new theater. When Palmer was deployed to the Balkans in the late 1990s, his main task was to sweep unexploded ordnance from battlefields and firing ranges once the action was over. He followed a cold war playbook – when to get the tools out, when to just blow something up. But that playbook only works when you’re up against mass-produced bombs. Guerrillas in Iraq cobble together weapons from whatever they can find.

A bombmaker in Mosul might use dynamite and a timer from a washing machine. One in Baghdad lashes artillery shells to a motorcycle battery and a cordless telephone. Insurgent cells swap tactics on Web sites, and when American forces catch on, the terrorists move to newer tactics.

Even worse, the bomb squads themselves have become targets. The 20-man company that the 717th replaced in June saw two soldiers killed and four wounded in six months. As a result, the unit is isolated and deeply secretive, eating meals in the shop instead of at the mess hall and shooing away curious GIs; anyone who gets his name in the papers owes the unit a case of beer, and the newsletter they email home doesn’t use last names.

There’s a rumor that the other side has put a $50,000 price on each of them. “When it was us versus the Warsaw Pact, the forward troops would move and EOD would clean up afterward,” Palmer says. “Now we’re the ones getting shot at.”

• For the complete story, go to Wired magazine.

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