Iraq is the world’s largest junkyard of UXO (unexploded ordnance). These are the guys who clean up the mess.
March 2003, Kuwait. The beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Todd Robinson and Peter Kern are going on 36 hours without sleep. They are naval explosive experts from Mobile Unit 6, assigned to accompany Marines and Army combat units on the coalition convoy to Baghdad. Their job is explosive ordnance disposal (EOD), a little-known military assignment that in some ways is the most crucial and dangerous. Robinson and Kern are trained as Navy divers, familiar with underwater mines and bridge bombs. But coalition forces need more EOD experts on the ground, so the two have been reassigned to the Army and Marines. They sit in the darkness of a truck in Kuwait, wearing night-vision goggles, and wait.
“Nobody knew exactly when we were going across the line,” says Robinson. “And then all of a sudden it was, ‘Go!’ We went from sitting there to going 50, 60 miles an hour in a convoy. You didn’t quite know what was going to happen until it did. As soon as we came across the line we could see missiles coming in and being shot down.”
The next few weeks were a blur, as Kern and Robinson hurried to locate ordnance that could blow the convoy to pieces. The most common method: strapping explosives to abandoned enemy mortar and anti-missile batteries, detonating them from a distance while dodging small-arms fire, then hopping back into the convoy. They stopped only to take quick naps against the vehicle tires. As they plodded on to Baghdad, the Iraq landscape opened up into a surreal dreamland of unexploded ordnance (UXO) in every direction.
“It was crazy,” says Robinson, now stationed in Charlotte, North Carolina. “There’s so much ordnance over there it’s unbelievable.”
“We saw pretty much everything,” adds Kern, also back in Charlotte. “We disposed of, oh shit, somewhere around 300,000 land mines. We got rid of over 15,000 RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades). We concentrated on all the stuff that could be used easily against our forces: the mortars, the RPGs, the shoulder-fired missiles, SA-7s (Soviet-made surface-to-air missiles), projectiles and land mines.”
Once Baghdad was secured, Robinson and Kern shifted their focus to weapons bunkers and caches, booby-trapped vehicles and improvised bombs. By the time they pulled out of Iraq at the end of May, they had disposed of an estimated million pounds of ordnance, barely scratching the surface but enough to pave the path to Baghdad. Both received the Bronze Star for their work, often under enemy fire.
After three wars in the past two decades, Iraq is littered with unused and unfired ordnance, an estimated 1 million tons of weapons and ammunition in the cities, villages and desert. By all accounts it’s the largest weapons junkyard in the world. UXO cleanup remains vital to rebuilding the country, because the unused ordnance is already being smuggled out to terrorist factions or used to create improvised explosive devices (IEDs). It’s now a race between EOD technicians destroying the ordnance, and rebel factions using it against coalition troops and the Iraqi provisional government.
Although little known to most military personnel or the general public, EOD technicians act as the world’s housekeepers of war, cleaning up the landscape of dangerous ordnance on every continent. Throw a dart at a map of the world and you’ll hit a region with UXO. Besides Iraq and the Middle East, military EOD crews work assignments in 62 countries, from Bosnia to Vietnam, Korea, Germany, El Salvador, India, Angola, Ethiopia and Mozambique. EOD crews can also be stationed at U.S. military training facilities, working to neutralize bombing practice ranges in places such as Puerto Rico, Fort Ord and the Hawaiian island of Kahoolawe. The Department of Defense estimates that the United States alone has 25 million acres of contaminated land. Bomb disposal is now an integral and vital division of military service, with hundreds of men and women stationed around the globe. But it wasn’t always that way. Sixty years ago, EOD didn’t exist at all.
Prior to World War II, bombs were simplistic in design and presented little danger if they failed to detonate. But Luftwaffe air strikes during the Battle of Britain introduced a new set of difficulties. Technological advances in delay and anti-tamper fusings meant that German bombs could land in a London neighborhood and seemingly fail to explode. Hours later the devices would detonate, killing citizens as well as the British engineers who attempted to disable the bombs. Military schools opened in Britain and the United States during the war, reverse-engineering bomb designs and teaching the latest methods of ordnance disposal.
Each branch of the U.S. military trained its own elite squad of EOD technicians until 1947, when the Navy was assigned joint responsibility of all EOD training. From 1955 to 1993, soldiers from the Army, Air Force, Marines and Navy attended the EOD school at Indian Head, Maryland. In 1999 EOD training moved to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, where naval instructors now teach EOD techniques to members of each service. (One recruiting video title: “It’s Not Just a Job, It’s a Blast.”) After graduating, techs return to their respective branches and are shipped out around the world to apply their skills. Because of the inherent danger in handling bombs, many technicians lose their lives in operational or training accidents. An EOD memorial, erected at the school at Eglin, enshrines the names of over 170 members who have been killed in the line of duty.
UXO technically includes everything from bullets and land mines to 3,000-pound bombs. UXO can be found on top of the ground, buried more than 30 feet beneath the surface, even underwater, and it can migrate over time with soil and weather changes. One standard method of UXO detection is called “mag, flag, dig,” in which a magnetometer, used either from the ground or air, detects changes in Earth’s magnetic field. Ground Penetrating Radar, infrared sensors and electromagnetic induction are also used, as well as specially trained dogs and even dolphins. If there is time, EOD crews excavate the UXO by hand or with remote-control robotics, then either detonate it or melt it in a kiln. But if technicians are moving in a convoy under enemy fire, like Todd Robinson and Peter Kern, there’s no time for such luxuries. Robinson and Kern either blew up ordnance on the spot, buried it and then blew it up, or loaded it with charges and detonated it with a few shots from a .50-caliber sniper rifle. Some blasts were so big they set them off from three kilometers away, sending up black mushroom clouds big enough to be visible from NASA satellites.
“The largest shot I ever did until going over there was 20,000 pounds of ordnance, net explosive weight (NEW),” explains Robinson. “There was days in Iraq when we were doing 90,000-pound shots. One week alone we got rid of 350,000 pounds NEW.” (A 90,000-pound blast is five times as powerful as the largest conventional bomb.)
The sheer amount of UXO in Iraq overwhelms military crews, and so the government has subcontracted private UXO companies to help clean up the country. Civilian EOD techs are even more tight-lipped than their military counterparts. One such person, however, agreed to talk on record about the EOD situation from a civilian perspective. His name is Russell Shattles, and he works in the town of Kirkush, Iraq.
The Kirkush military base is located about 90 miles northeast of Baghdad, eight miles from the Iranian border. The campus contains roughly 200 unfinished buildings abandoned after the first Gulf War. Today it’s a training facility for the new Iraqi army. All troops take EOD classes from one instructor: Russell Shattles.
A former Army EOD technician, Shattles spent time in Korea, Kuwait and even the White House before moving into the private sector eight years ago. He’s been teaching in Kirkush since July 2003, and with 20 years’ experience knows dozens of EOD techs working in Iraq and around the world. The private sector is very similar to the military world, he says. Nearly all technicians attended the same Navy training school. A civilian tech in Iraq is issued the same military gear as soldiers, except for weapons. Civilian techs often travel with military escorts and work alongside military units through assignments like the Captured Enemy Ammunition program and Oil-line Reinfrastructure Program. If it’s a combat zone, there is no overtime. A shift can last 15 days.
Like their military counterparts, civilian techs must know how to identify ordnance on sight and determine how best to dispose of it. UXO can originate from any number of countries: Russia, China, the former Yugoslavia, France, Italy or the United States. According to Shattles, an unexploded bomb discovered in downtown Baghdad has a good chance of being from the United States and will be more delicate to disarm or detonate because of nearby buildings. Ordnance found in the desert in the middle of nowhere is more likely to be a cache of foreign ordnance and is easier to light up all at once.
It sounds like a job for the clinically insane, but a trained EOD tech knows the precautions to take, depending on the ordnance and environment in which it’s found.
“You can sort of cross things off your list,” says Shattles. “Can you move a hand grenade? Well, if you’re absolutely sure it’s got a safety pin in it, and you even see safety tape around the spoon and it’s not coming off, well, then yeah, you can generally assume it’s okay to move it. Or a storage configuration in a big bunker: If the fuses are in another building 100 feet away, then yeah, it’s fairly safe. But there’s always something that’s gonna turn around and bite you in the butt if you take it off the list too quickly.”
Safety is even more of a concern for EOD civilians in a combat zone, because they aren’t armed and can’t shoot back. It’s not uncommon for techs working with an Army unit to be taking enemy fire or dodging potshots from hotel windows in downtown Baghdad. Even a small village of civilians can be dangerous.
“A lot of times there would be kids who would know where the ordnance was and take us to it,” recalls Peter Kern. “That was scary. You didn’t know if the kid was gonna run up ahead of you and pick it up and hand it to you or what. These kids were still playing ball in close proximity to things that, if you move them slightly, they would detonate.”
Perhaps the nastiest, trickiest ordnance for any EOD to neutralize is an improvised explosive device (IED). This homemade device is essentially a bomb made from chemicals mixed in a bathroom, parts from a blasting shop or military ordnance left out in the middle of the desert. IEDs are increasingly popular in Iraq because they’re so easy to make, and there’s a limitless supply of ordnance. A person can walk around with a sack, pick up mortars or projectiles and make them into bombs. One of the most common IEDs is a roadside bomb, set alongside a highway, with wires running out into the desert to a remote control. If a U.S. convoy comes along, Iraqis delay traffic to slow the speed and, when the convoy hits the right spot, set off the bombs with vicious results. IEDs can also be used to booby-trap vehicles, weapons bunkers, even a package of frozen meat sitting at a bus stop.
“What makes an IED so much worse than a regular piece of conventional ordnance,” says Todd Robinson, “is that there’s an unlimited number of ways it can be initiated: an individual with a cell phone, by trip wires, by pressure plates. It might be as simple as hooking a garage door opener to a blasting cap and sticking it into a fuse well of a projectile. If you’ve got any knowledge at all of how to build an IED, there’s numerous ways that you can set it up.”
More and more U.S. casualties are resulting from IEDs. Russell Shattles helped investigate one incident in which a 130 mm roadside bomb hit an armored Hummer, penetrating the armor and killing the gunner. In one month, three civilian EOD techs were killed by IEDs, two from a roadside bomb that destroyed their vehicle and another who died attempting to disarm a roadside bomb.
“It’s an irony when it kills an EOD tech,” Shattles says, “because 95 percent of the EOD guys ? that’s why they’re there, to clean that up. This stuff, someone got to before they had a chance to get rid of it.”
Unfortunately, IEDs are only going to become more of a problem, because the enemy is more aware of our tactics, says Robinson. “It’s impossible to prevent certain patterns of movements, and that makes vehicles easy to target.”
Civil war in Bosnia lasted three years, scattering the terrain with over 3 million land mines – more than 150 mines per square mile. Although war ended in 1995, the UXO cleanup continues to this day. American practice bombing of the Hawaiian island Kahoolawe ended in 1991, but UXO operations have been extended for yet another year, at a cost of nearly half a billion dollars. Farmers in Normandy, France, still discover unexploded bombs in their fields. Anyone who says a UXO operation is completed is a fool.
Iraq will be even worse. Roads and villages are strewn with abandoned projectiles and missiles. An estimated 10 million land mines lie in the sand. The desert is dotted with who knows how many bunkers of munitions. It will take years, perhaps even decades, to clean up, especially once safety and environmental restrictions are put in place.
More so even than the killing and torture, UXO is Saddam Hussein’s most lasting legacy. The regime may be gone, but the tons of unexploded ordnance remain a grim reminder that war is never really over.
“This is gonna be a job for civilian contractors for years to come,” says Todd Robinson. “I’ve got a lot of friends who work UXO. One told me the other day, ‘You get out, you got a job tomorrow.’”
(First published in American Thunder magazine)