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Learning the hard way from IEDs

Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, have long been used in warfare. During the war in Iraq insurgents raised the bar with cheaply made and hard to detect IEDs.

Much like the infamous “tigerpits” with sharpened bamboo stakes used in Vietnam, so did the hidden IEDs have an effect psychologically, as well as physically. As I found out in Afghanistan, many of the soldiers were not afraid of dying as much as they were terrified of losing legs and becoming permanently disabled as a result of an IED blasts.

Tactics and techniques for IED detection and disposal that are used in Afghanistan today were learned the hard way in Iraq. In addition to modern defence technology like the new and improved armoured personnel carriers and other accessories, the military sought to encourage their best human resources to re-enlist or redeploy to Afghanistan to help teach and train the new teams on the ground about the feared hidden bombs.

Every company has a badass, a soldier who has racked up loads of combat street cred where he has executed mission after mission under extremely hazardous conditions. His superiors praise him and an aura of mystique follows him from the barracks to the combat zone.

For the United States Army’s170th Infantry Brigade Combat Team 40th Engineers in Afghanistan,that man is Staff Sergeant Ashley Johnson from Donaldson,Louisiana. If you wanted to make a movie about a veteran sapper, Sergeant Johnson is your man.

''Each day and before every mission Johnson and his team would kneel and pray.''

His file shows he has been blown up 13 times. All of those coming during his three tours during Iraqi Freedom. No doubt,SSG Johnson is tough, with bull-like shoulders and working man arms, and he looks like he could play defensive back for a pro football team. But tough as he is, when he received the news that he was to be deployed to Iraq, he felt his knees buckle.
“I was scared,” SSG Johnson admits. “I was very afraid I was afraid of getting maimed. We all knew the risks involved. I thought about it a lot initially.Then the missions start and you get caught up in the day in and day out of operations and you sort of file it away in the back of your mind. But you never forget about what could happen.”

SSG Johnson certainly had reason to worry – to date more than 1,000 US soldiers are amputees as a result of IEDs and land mines. That is something that those in Cambodia can certainly identify with.

Johnson was ambitious and hard nosed and war was what warriors did. In between his second and third deployments in Iraq, Johnson was entered by his brigade into inter-army competitions where he excelled. He also qualified for special forces and was put on the acceptance list.

For his service and courage he had racked up numerous awards and medals. Then his company was ordered back to Iraq and his dream of special forces service would have to wait until he returned. Over the course of three deployments, Johnson was rocked hard and often and he managed to keep the fear in check.

As platoon leader he knew the men looked up to him for assurance. Each day and before every mission Johnson and his team would kneel and pray.

“As a leader you are overwhelmed with all these emotions,but you have to show confidence,” Johnson said.“Many times we would drive down a section of road and we would cringe up in preparation because you knew it was coming. Sometimes it did and sometimes it didn’t. I told my guys that all 11 of us are deployed and all 11 of us are coming back from here.”

They were part of the StrykerBrigade at Five Hammer Iraq.The United States military had learned the hard way about improvised explosive devicesand had adapted accordingly with the latest technology. Now the 40th Company of Engineers rolled in M-RAPs, mine resistant vehicles built with v shaped hulls to disperse the blast and other newly developed add-ons.
On the night they were calledfor duty, one of SSG Johnson’s men and good friend Sergeant McKale had his vehicle malfunctionduring the preparation phase.

“We had to cross-load all equipment to another vehicle that was not blast proof,” SSGJohnson says. “That was the first omen. SSG Johnson ordered McKale to follow last in the convoy so to minimise the risk.

“As we made the turn to go into the area of operation, I had this chill go through my body,” Johnson recalls. “Nothing felt right about this mission. I told my guys to keep looking for those indicators.”

Indicators are what the Army call signs that can tip off an approaching convoy to an improvised explosive device. It could be anything from a plastic bag tied to a limb, to a small pile of rocks off the side of the road to some discolouration of earth.

Slowly they rolled, searching for IEDs when kaboom!

“My platoon sergeant said‘Sergeant McKale’s vehicle got hit and it’s on fire’.“All stop! All stop!” Johnson shouted into the convoy communication system.

Fearing an ambush, immediately they went to battlefield stations. Prior to the operation, Johnson’s vehicle had been designated as the rescue vehicle.

“As soon as we turn around, I can see Sergeant McKale’s vehicle on fire, and I am begging God to let all my soldiers be safe.”Johnson saw the driver and gunner jump out of the vehicle on fire and he remembers rushing to Sergeant McKale’s side of the vehicle. McKale had been knocked out, his skull fractured from where he had smashed his head on the dashboard mounted computer system.

A landing zone was quickly prepared and McKale was taken out.

Waiting back at the KOP was the battalion commander,chaplain and company commander. SSG McKale had beenflown to Bilac military hospitaland was in a vegetated state. A Blackhawk helicopter flew the men to Bilac and they walked into SSG McKale’s room just as he was being given a purpleheart. Four days later his parents decided to take him off the life support system.

Johnson would accompany McKale’s body back to Montana and serve as one of the pallbearers at his funeral. Then he visited McKale’s high school, met his friends and saw the home where he grew up. Two weeks later he was back in Iraq. And then Johnson fainted. A cat scanfound he had a quarter sized contusion on his brain. Diagnosis TBI, or traumatic brain contusion, as a result from multiple IED blasts.

“It is his dedication to the engineering corps and the nation,” says Lt Colonel Erik Zetterstrom, Commanding Officer of Camp Mike Spannin Afghanistan. “Johnson has been blown up many times,and it would be very easy for him to say that is enough and get out. He wants to help others come home safely.”

“That is some serious evil, man. It is like a fire stream of hot lava coming at you head-on.”

Today armoured personnel carriers are built with the sole purpose of surviving IED blasts. But the one thing they cannot do is to prevent the violent shockwaves that result from big mortar shells wrapped in Semtex and placed in canisters of gasoline.
The explosion alone can flip a tank in the air. According to an article in Neurophilosophy,the initial explosion is followed by a second shock caused froma “huge volume of displaced air that returns to the site of the explosion, also under extremely high pressure”. Basically, that second blast can be just as potent, especially for brain injuries where you literally have your brain rocked so strong that it can get dislodged.

Here in Afghanistan the most common vehicle is the M-ATV, MRAP All Terain Vehicle. It is built to accommodatefive soldiers and weighs about two tons. As reported by Frank Chadwick of, “80 percent of the time a Humvee is hit by a mine or IED, one or more passengers die. That happens only 15 percent of the time when an MRAP is hit”.

One of the latest additions to the MRAP is a defensive netting that is designed to catchan RPG, allowing it to explode outside the vehicle.

“The last thing you want is an RPG penetrating your vehicle,”says SSG Johnson. “That is some serious evil, man. It is like a fire stream of hot lava coming at you head-on.”

What SSG Johnson had, a closed head wound, is often difficult to detect until the moodswings and depression become too obvious. SSG Johnson would also be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

He is no longer bitter aboutthe injury that cut his career in the special forces short. Nor does he get caught up in the politics of why he was in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Johnson has one mission now.

“All I want is to see my men go home safely and with allt heir limbs,” Johnson said.“Regardless of your ideology on the war here, you got to respect that those soldiers who go outside the wire are putting their lives on the line.”



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