For some troops, Afghan war chiefly a battle against concealed bombs
ARGHANDAB VALLEY, Afghanistan — The U.S. forces’ enemy is almost invisible in parts of this lush valley in southern Afghanistan. It comes not as gunmen but as bombs planted on footpaths, wedged into walls, nestled in trees and hidden under bridges.
The soldiers of Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division have been in only one significant firefight in the more than six months they’ve been in a 1.2-square-mile area north of Kandahar city.
But nearly every day they encounter bombs. Bravo Company’s dogged fight for control of the southern end of the Arghandab river valley is a constant battle against homemade bombs — known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs — which accounted for about 40 percent of U.S. fatalities in 2009, according to an Associated Press tally of NATO reports.
And the bombs don’t discriminate. They also accounted for 60 percent of the 600 Afghan civilian casualties from January through June this year, NATO says.
Typically, troops depend on ordnance disposal teams for bomb experts. Those teams are in Arghandab too, but in Bravo Company the average soldier has acquired some intense on-the-job training in spotting bombs. Soldiers describe a sort of sixth sense that develops after encountering so many.
“We’re looking for booby traps, trip wires or just the absence of the normal,” said Lt. Ross Weinshenker, 24, who commands one of the two platoons that patrol out of the company’s main combat outpost.
Three soldiers in the company have been killed by buried explosives, and almost every soldier has encountered one.
Capt. Adam Armstrong, the company commander, said more than 20 of its roughly 150 soldiers in Arghandab have been wounded.
Sgt. Erik Hoeksema, a 34-year-old Chicagoan, was hit twice in two weeks. His first came when his truck struck a bomb in April, giving him a concussion.
Then, on his first patrol after returning from that injury, a fellow soldier stepped on a buried bomb. The other soldier lost his foot. Hoeksema was lucky enough to get away with just a second concussion.
Buried explosives appear to have tapered off in recent weeks, since the capture of a major bomb-making unit in the area, Armstrong said. But the soldiers remain vigilant. “I don’t have any false ideas. They have plenty of people to replace them,” Hoeksema said of the captured bomb-makers. One of Bravo Company’s soldiers contends with a flock of sheep while on patrol Friday in the bomb-plagued Arghandab valley.