20. THE SUICIDAL PERSON’S GUIDE TO BOMB DISPOSAL
Kandahar is littered with explosives. Thanks to its history of constant war, occupation by foreign nations, and good old fashioned civil conflict, there is never a shortage of military grade munitions for the person who wants to find some.
The Soviet army planted hundreds of millions of landmines and dropped millions of pounds of bombs in a futile attempt to defeat the Mujahideen in the 1980s. The vast majority of those landmines were never triggered, and due to fantastic Soviet engineering, a lot of those bombs simply buried themselves into the dirt rather than explode. But for a fighter too lazy to grab a shovel and go unearth some military grade explosives, it was plenty easy to make some of their own.
Afghanistan doesn’t have much of a legal economy to speak of. What it does have is a thriving poppy farming industry that has made them the number-one producer of opium poppies in the world. That meant it was normal to see tons of fertilizer bags piled around everywhere we went. It was incredibly easy for a Taliban operative to mix some of this fertilizer with some kerosene to create an ammonium nitrate fuel oil explosive, or ANFO, in the comfort of their own home.
It took a particular kind of fertilizer to make ANFO. Knowing this, the Afghan president Hamid Karzai made it illegal to own. He waved his hands and figured that would solve the problem. Unfortunately, no one ever figured out a way to replace the millions of tons of old fertilizer that was lying around. And farmers needed to farm. So they just ignored the presidential order and no one ever enforced it.
The Taliban would take whatever choice explosive they were using, pack it into a box, bag, or sometimes into a vest they would wear, and place it somewhere to attempt to blow up allied soldiers. Every once in a while, their bomb would fail, and we would recover it. Back in the day, we would just shoot at the unexploded IEDs on the corner of the road and try to make them explode.
Someone above me in the chain of command realized we could use those bombs to try to find the bomb makers. So the new rule became to call EOD. If they thought they could safely transport the IED, they took it with them to a forensic lab and went all CSI on it.
They’d pull fingerprints, building schematics, and note what region the parts came from. Using all that information, they would dispatch soldiers to go looking for the masterminds behind the bombs. These orders were killing more U.S. soldiers than anything else.
Which brings me to a mission we were sent out on one incredibly hot day in the middle of nowhere on the outskirts of Kandahar City. All the bombs recovered by EOD are processed by forensic units. They were then brought to one central location at the local Afghan Police Provincial Headquarters. It was staffed by both Afghans and Americans. The Afghans hadn’t figured out how to keep their trucks running, let alone plan and execute their own missions.
We arrived at the small, cramped, and dusty compound and set out to find the EOD soldier in charge of the mission. Slim, Nan, and I walked into a small tent that was supposed to be acting as EOD’s headquarters. We were confronted by several confused Croatian soldiers who were sitting around in lawn chairs.
“We are looking for Sergeant Day,” Slim said, anxious to get on with the mission. The Croatian soldiers exchanged glances with each other and gave us blank stares.
“E-O-D?” Nan said doing that weird thing people do when talking to people who don’t speak the same language. He said it more slowly and more loudly.
“Oh!” The Croatians looked like they understood.
A big guy with a shiny bald head pointed to a patch on his arm that clearly said EOD.
“I am EOD!” he said in a thick accent.
“Umm…” Nan started.
“You clearly speak the most Croatian of any of us,” I said.
“Shut up,” Nan snapped at me. He turned back to the Croatians. “You have…mission…with…us?”
“Goddamn, you speak Croatian so badly I could swear it was retarded English,” I said.
The Croatians looked confused again. We were at a loss about what to do.
An American soldier burst into the tent behind us. He looked a little surprised to see us standing in there. “You must be our escorts,” he said without introducing himself, though I could read his nametag. It said “Day.”
“Yeah,” Slim answered.
“Sorry about that, we were getting our truck ready. You want to come give us a hand?” Day wasn’t really asking as he’d already turned around and walked out of the tent. The Croatians rushed out after him and we followed.
The EOD soldiers had an old beat-up flatbed truck pulled up next to a storage container. The storage container was full of unmarked white bags. Some of the EOD guys were tossing them onto the back of the truck.
“We are loading up all of our ordinance in the back of the truck, then we’ll head out. There’s a lot of it, though, so we might need your help,” Day said, pointing to the massive storage container.
“What is it?” Slim asked.
“Explosives, dude.” Day gave him a look that just screamed no shit.
We fell into the chain of people who were handing the explosive cargo down the line and into the truck. Every bag I was given leaked small, white pellets out of various holes. Each bag weighed easily forty pounds, and there were hundreds of them.
It took hours to load all the white bags in the blistering heat. I was originally taken aback when the Croatian soldiers started lighting cigarettes. They were surrounded by literally thousands of pounds of explosives. I made the universal symbol for a cigarette to bum from the nearest Croatian soldier. He smiled and handed me one. “This sucks…Marlboro…dick!” he said with a big smile on his face. I honestly had no idea what that meant, but I thought it was hilarious and started laughing. He started laughing too, probably just as confused as I was. In his jovial laughter, his cigarette dropped from his lips and plummeted toward the ground.
All around us were millions of tiny white pellets. Tiny white pellets of ANFO. Everything slowed down into a Hollywood style bullet-time effect as the cigarette bounced onto the pile of ANFO pellets. I saw my incredibly disappointing life flash before my eyes.
Nothing happened. Everyone saw the look of absolute terror on my face and started laughing. The Croatian soldier who gave me the cigarette smiled at me. He made an explosion sound with his mouth and feigned injury. All of the EOD guys knew the explosives were more or less safe and knew that unless they were wired up to actually explode, nothing was going to happen. I smiled and tried to laugh it off.
After the countless unmarked bags of ANFO came the standard military hardware. Land mines, artillery shells, mortar rounds, grenades. You name it, and it was probably in that pile somewhere. Even though the explosives had been around since the days of the Soviet invasion, absolutely no care was taken into loading them up on the truck.
The first time I saw a Croatian with a lit cigarette throw a mortar round while doing his best Tom Brady impression I was a little surprised. Afterward, with soldiers from various nations and various units throwing unstable explosives through the air, I inexplicably calmed down. I assumed the experts knew what they were doing. Even if they didn’t, I wouldn’t feel a thing from the resulting explosion anyway.
With all the explosives loaded up on the truck, we all gathered around for the briefing of what came next.
“We have a detonation site a few miles out, one of our trucks will take the lead,” Sergeant Day said. We normally had a detailed briefing before every single mission. We would go over the exact route we would be taking, what our plans were if we got attacked, and how we planned to respond. Day didn’t have any of those things.
Slim asked the question we were all wondering. “What if we get in contact along the way?”
Day laughed. “I understand your concerns if we are attacked. But if this truck gets hit,” he said, pointing to the pile of explosives in the back of the truck, “the resulting explosion will vaporize everyone in the convoy. So there isn’t really a need for a backup plan.”
Not one of us had anything to say to that.
Day was speaking the truth. There were easily several thousand pounds of explosives in the truck’s bed. If we were attacked, Kandahar City would resemble Nagasaki. The world might be a better place for it.
Our convoy slowly pulled out of the headquarters’ cramped confines. A large EOD vehicle known as a Buffalo led the way. If our MATVs were armored semi-trucks, then a Buffalo was an armored school bus. The thing was huge, sat about eight people, and had a giant robotically controlled arm that hung off the side. EOD could use it to probe possible roadside bombs while in the relative safety of their giant armored bus.
I had always heard rumors that in over ten years of war, not a single soldier had been killed while riding in a Buffalo. Seeing it up close, I could understand why that was possible.
The shuddering, rickety, explosives-laden cargo truck followed behind it being driven by Croatian soldiers. Our squad’s vehicles pulled up the rear.
Watching the massive Buffalo—which had to be the biggest vehicle to ever grace the road in Afghanistan—maneuver through the congested roads of Kandahar was pretty impressive. Meanwhile in our truck, Cali kept sideswiping cars and mowing over unattended motorcycles that were even slightly in his way.
“Oh come on, dude, that one wasn’t even in your way!” Grandpa yelled into his headset.
“It was coming right for us!” Cali joked through a mouthful of dip.
“I hate you guys.” Grandpa shook his head and changed the music on his iPod from Justin Bieber to some awful country singer I didn’t recognize.
“What is this shit, man? Like living in Afghanistan isn’t depressing enough, now we’ve got to listen to how this cowboy’s dog died and his wife fucked his tractor,” I complained.
“You have the worst musical taste of any human being I’ve ever met,” Grandpa shot back. “It’s nothing but whiny suburban kids screaming about how much they hate their parents.” He, of course, was insulting my taste in metalcore music. As much as I liked it, I couldn’t argue; it was pretty bad.
“At least I know none of my favorite artists banged one of their relatives,” I laughed.
“Don’t hate on them because they have game, Joe,” Grandpa said and spat a wad of dip spit into an empty bottle.
“That still doesn’t explain all the Bieber, dude,” I said.
“It was my little girl’s iPod before we deployed. Reminds me of her,” Grandpa said with a smile.
“Ugh, that’s so fucking heartwarming I can’t even judge you for it. Asshole.” I feigned disgust.
“Doesn’t mean I can’t,” Cali said sidelong.
We turned into what could only be described as suburbia hell. It was a strange site. It was styled in the western grid pattern of nicely paved streets with neat little white concrete sidewalks lining them. There were even streetlights, though no electricity would ever flow to them. It was as if someone started building one of those manufactured suburban neighborhoods, but stopped just short of starting to build the houses themselves.
“Does this remind you of home?” Grandpa joked, looking at me.
“Aren’t you from Chicago?” I asked. “Or are there not enough gunshots to make you reminisce?”
“Nah, man.” He shook his head. “Streets are too nice.”
“Doesn’t it make you wish the U.S. Army would invade your city and help build all this beautiful shit?” I laughed.
We drove slowly down the street gawking at the piece of abandoned Americana. It was slowly being reclaimed by Afghanistan. People started setting up tin shacks on the empty house plots, donkeys wandered the streets, and trash and human waste had started piling up at the street corners. It would probably have some stupid name like “Freedom Hills” or “Orchard Estates” if it were ever finished.
Thankfully, we made it out of the twisting innards of downtown Kandahar unscathed and started cruising through the countryside. Before long, the lead truck turned right and led us into a barren valley. Our trucks kicked up a blinding dust cloud and I could barely see out of my window.
“You okay, Cali?” Grandpa asked with concern.
“Me? Yeah, I’m all right,” Cali answered calmly.
“You can see through this shit?” I asked.
“Oh.” He was surprised that was what we were talking about. “No, man, I can’t see a damn thing.”
I couldn’t help laughing nervously as Grandpa shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
“Hollaback Girl” by Gwen Stefani came on the iPod.
“How old is your little girl?” I asked.
“Nine.” Grandpa smiled, pointing to a picture he had taped to the windshield. A little girl in a red dress was smiling while sitting on a swing.
“Tell her that her taste in music fucking sucks.”
About halfway into the valley our convoy ground to a halt. The EOD guys hopped out of their mammoth truck and gathered behind the cargo truck full of explosives. We clambered out of our trucks and followed them.
“All right, guys, this is where we’re setting up,” Day said. “Unload the ANFO first into a neat little pile.” We all nodded and got to work. We formed a chain passing the leaking bags from one person to another. When a bag got to the last person, they piled it in the little square that Day had laid out.
The heat was oppressive, even for southern Afghanistan. The dusty valley we were in amplified the heat like an oven. Without giving orders, Slim took off his body armor and tossed it into the dirt. We all quickly followed suit and it suddenly felt like the weight of the world had been removed from my shoulders.
The ANFO bags quickly piled up into a neat square, and we all sat down in the dirt trying in vain to hide underneath the scant shade of our trucks. We tried to replace the puddles of sweat we lost by desperately chugging water. The beating sun had put my water a few degrees south of boiling and scorched my mouth.
“Good job, boys!” Day smiled. “Now we’re going to pile all the bombs and mortars in the middle.”
We all groaned, stood back up, and got back to work. We unloaded all the rusty, dented, and probably unstable munitions down the chain and onto the ground. We were so tired at that point that several of us dropped shells or mortars and watched them bounce off the ground with no reaction. Finally, all the munitions were loaded in a pile within the pile of ANFO bags.
The sun was mercifully starting to sink in the sky, and the temperature finally dipped below the climate of the Sun’s surface. I plopped down in the dirt next to one of the Croatian guys and put in a dip.
The Croatian soldier stuck his hand out like he wanted some. I shrugged and gave him some. I would have explained to him that the first time I dipped I got the worst heartburn of my life and puked all over the place, but I had a feeling he wouldn’t understand. He took a massive pinch from my can and stuck it in his lip.
The EOD guys grabbed what looked like a huge roll of Fruit by the Foot from the back of their truck. It was a large, industrial roll of thick, bright green tape. They started unspooling it all around the pile we created.
“The fuck is that?” Cali asked, hiding under the MATV bumper in the shade.
“Data sheets,” Day quipped. He saw the clueless look on our faces. “It’s plastic explosive.”
“There weren’t enough explosives before?” Cali asked.
“Sometimes that old shit doesn’t like to go off like it should. This tends to help it along the way,” Day said. “And it makes a sweet fireball.”
“Sweet fireballs are important,” I agreed.
After the data sheets had all been laid out, they started unspooling wires and cords in every direction.
Before we could ask, Day filled us in. “Detonation cord,” he said shortly. “It’s explosive cord that will trigger the explosion. We are going to spool it all the way out to the safety zone.”
“Safety zone?” I asked.
“Yeah, we’re supposed to be about a mile away when this amount of shit goes off.” Day lit a cigarette. “But then you don’t get to see any cool shit, so we’re going about five hundred meters back.”
“Sergeant, I don’t mean any disrespect, but that is significantly less than a mile,” I tried to point out helpfully.
“Hey, which one of us is the explosives expert?” Day smiled, blowing smoke through his nose.
“You, apparently.” I shrugged. With the cord unspooled, we picked our body armor and weapons back up and climbed into our trucks. The sun had set behind the mountains, and the clear star-lit sky shone overhead.
We drove out to the mouth of the valley and parked our vehicles. Slim had won a game of rock-paper-scissors between himself, Day, Kitty, and Perro and won the right to set off the explosion. He got out of his truck and climbed into the EOD guy’s Buffalo.
“Okay, guys, is everyone buttoned up in their trucks? All hatches closed?” Day asked over the radio.
“Yep,” Grandpa responded.
“Roger,” Kitty answered.
“Da,” answered a heavily accented voice.
“Fire in the hole. Fire in the hole. Fire in the hole,” Day repeated.
An angry red fireball erupted into the night sky lighting up the valley like high noon. It was oddly silent for the first few seconds until the blast wave hit our trucks.
It sounded like a freight train passed right by my head. Our truck shook on its axles. Pebbles and rocks smashed into our windows leaving tiny cracks all over. The entire valley was blanketed in dust and debris, and we couldn’t see anything. It went back to pitch darkness just as quickly as it had lit up.
“Holy shit!” Grandpa screamed, laughing.
“My fucking windshield!” Cali cried. Sometimes I could swear he loved that truck more than his wife.
The dust cleared, and the valley was once again enveloped in darkness. The Buffalo circled around and started driving back toward the city and we followed suit.
“That was fun, boys,” Slim laughed over the radio. “Maybe next time, don’t wait a year to blow some shit up.”
“A year?” Day laughed in response. “That was from last month in our district alone.”
Inside our trucks we all exchanged looks. All that was from one month in the district we had been living in for the better part of six months?
It was unnerving to think about how much of what we’d just blown up was initially meant for us. Just one of those bags of ANFO would have turned one of our trucks into scrap metal and all of us into little more than a memory.