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IEDs kill, wound troops in Afghanistan

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IED: Those are the three deadliest letters in the alphabet for U.S. and other foreign soldiers serving in Afghanistan.

A term coined by the British Army while dealing with the Irish Republican Army in the 1970s, improvised explosive devices are defined as a homemade bomb constructed and deployed in ways other that conventional military action.

They come in many shapes and sizes, from mine-style pressure-plate explosives to complicated, radio-detonated bombs. They can be small or large, military-grade explosives or fertilizer-based but one thing is certain: they are deadly.

IEDs have been the number one killer of troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan, accounting for 711 deaths in 2010, of which 499 were American soldiers. Since the United States moved into Afghanistan in 2001, IEDs have killed 1,446 U.S. soldiers and 2,284 coalition military members and accounted for 58 percent of all military fatalities in Afghanistan in 2010.

For Ronan’s Tomy Parker, those numbers came into sharp focus on Dec. 11, when the Marine Lance Corporal lost both of his legs and his left hand to an IED in the Hemland Province of Afghanistan.

According to Parker, he and his fellow Marines were well-trained about the threat of IEDs, but the reality of the situation did not set in until he reached Afghanistan.

“Honestly, you just try not to think about it. You just have to go out there and do your job, but when one of your buddies gets hurt by one it really makes you mad,” he said in an interview Sunday. “When that would happen, I just wanted to get out there and find the person who did it. The person that just hurt my friends, the people I love.”

Parker found himself stationed in the most dangerous Afghan province in terms of IED fatalities, the Hemland Province. Since 2001, the Hemland Province has seen 660 IED fatalities, almost twice as many as the next-highest area, the neighboring Kanahar Province with 336 fatalities.

While it may seem strange to many, Parker said that the threat of IEDs just became a routine part of daily life while in Afghanistan.

“It’s always in the back of your mind. The minute you step out of a secured area, the threat is always there,” he said. “Our platoon found quite a few IEDs while I was there… about 50.” He added that these were all found in the short time he was there - about a month and a half.

According to some reports, the U.S. has spent more than $17 billion trying to find ways to find and combat IEDs, but the number and frequency of the bombs continues to increase in Afghanistan.

According to Parker, he was well-trained on how to find explosive devices, but the Afghans were also very good at concealing them.

“They taught us how to use metal detectors to find the metal parts in the IEDs, the wires, the batteries. They trained us by showing us what they look like buried. That way, we could recognize the disturbed earth and see what they might look like over there,” he said. 

“But it’s true, the number of IEDs had really picked up lately. It’s the most effective way they have to fight us. It’s easier for them to use those instead of trying to engage us in a gun fight. (It’s the) most effective way to do the most damage to us. Believe it or not, the Afghan locals are pretty intelligent people as far as learning how to make IEDs so that we can’t use our metal detectors to find them. They are getting better at burying them in the ground too.”

Parker said that the IED that caused his injuries was one of the mine-style explosives that are rigged to go off when stepped on.

“It was a pressure-plate IED that injured me. It was about a 20-pound jug of ammonium nitrate and aluminum powder,” Tomy said. “That kind is called a victim-initiated IED. Those kind go off when the pressure-plate is depressed to complete the circuit needed to detonate the blasting cap.”

Pressure-plate and victim-initiated IEDs are just a few of the many kinds encountered by soldiers in Afghanistan. Other types include command wire or CWIEDs, radio-controlled or RCIEDs and cell phone initiated IEDs.

A command wire IED uses an electrical firing cable that gives the user absolute control of when the bomb will detonate. Radio-controlled IEDs give the same amount of control, but do not have easily-detected wires running from the explosive to the firing device. As described, cell-phone IEDs are detonated by modified cell phones.

As IEDs become more prevalent in Afghanistan, the casualty numbers continue to mount. According to Parker, seeing your friends getting killed and injured leads to extreme frustration.

“It’s really very frustrating. With IEDs, you don’t know who buried it,” he said. “All you know is that one of your friends now no longer has their legs or their arms.  When there isn’t a person to be mad at or blame, it can be very hard to deal with.”

While Parker’s recovery continues to go well, he is quick to admit that it could have been worse for him. He was one of the lucky ones. He came home alive.

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