BABINEK, Afghanistan – Staff Sgt. Kelly Rogne walked down a dusty village road, rhythmically swinging a metal detector that resembled an oversized hockey stick.
He led a column of more than 20 soldiers past deep-green fields of marijuana that surround this village in Panjwai district, traditional homeland of the Taliban.
To defend this turf, Taliban fighters have seeded Babinek and other areas with dense concentrations of bombs, creating one of the most perilous patrol grounds U.S. soldiers have encountered during more than 11 years of war in Afghanistan.
Rogne, 36, from Colville, has displayed an uncanny ability to find these improvised explosive devices (IEDs). He uses technology, tracking skills and intuition honed by careful study of past bomb placements.
Some call Rogne the “IED Whisperer.”
On an early September patrol out of Combat Outpost Mushan, Rogne located 29 IEDs through the course of a painstaking, eight-hour movement across less than a kilometer of road, an accomplishment relayed through the chain of command to Pentagon generals.
On his next mission, Rogne would venture back on that route.
“I think I’m ready. I’m feeling it. They’re out there,” he declared.
Costly war drags on
The nation’s longest conflict has claimed the lives of more than 2,000 U.S. service members and continues to kill more each week. Within the past year, taxpayers’ spending on the war totaled more than $100 billion, financing everything from helicopter gunships to Alaska snow crab and Maine lobsters shipped to remote outposts as morale boosters.
With U.S. combat troops scheduled to be withdrawn by the end of 2014, the war in Afghanistan has, in many ways, faded from public attention and received little prominence in the heated U.S. presidential campaign.
But the pace of war has quickened in Panjwai in the last year.
Within a 20-mile stretch of irrigated fields and villages, the district hosts seven U.S. Army installations that bristle with surveillance equipment, Stryker vehicles and mine-clearing equipment. This attention reflects Panjwai’s history as a 1990s launching point for the Taliban and its strategic importance for insurgents as a smuggling corridor for weapons and explosives.
“It’s a very small piece of Afghanistan,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Eric Volk, the senior enlisted officer for the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment from Joint Base Lewis-McChord. “But it’s a very large part of the fight.”
Since arriving in Afghanistan in March, the Western Washington-based battalion – Rogne’s unit – has been at the forefront of that fight.
Volk said the battalion has put serious pressure on the Taliban, citing a significant drop in insurgent attacks in Kandahar City and other areas of southern Afghanistan as signs of success. This has been a tough campaign, turning villages into battle zones as U.S. troops repeatedly cycle through them trying to clear out insurgents.
Here, as elsewhere in Afghanistan, the insurgents’ makeshift bombs remain potent weapons.
In contrast to the high-powered U.S. arsenal, insurgents piece together IEDs from the scantiest of materials, packing explosives into recycled plastic containers as small as pint water bottles and drawing current from strings of used batteries.
Since 2006, the U.S. military has spent $18 billion for research, equipment, training and other efforts to combat IEDs, and soldiers are able to safely destroy most of the bombs they encounter.
Still, the bombs extract a deadly toll. During the past three years, nearly 60 percent of U.S. troops who died in combat were killed by IEDs, according to Defense Manpower Data Center statistics.
In Panjwai, five men attached to the 1st Battalion’s 1,200-person task force have been killed by the bombs.
IEDs often maim soldiers rather than killing them, and these traumatic wounds have become signature injuries of foot-patrol campaigns.
Of the more than 100 troops evacuated from the 1st Battalion task force with serious injuries, 23 lost limbs, including seven double-amputees and one triple amputee, according to Lt. Col. Wilson Rutherford, 1st Battalion’s commander. Dozens more soldiers suffered mild traumatic brain injuries, fractures or other wounds from the blasts.
Insurgents try to warn villagers to stay away from active IED sites.
But in the first six months of this year, the bombs caused 33 percent of all civilian casualties, killing 327 civilians and injuring 689, according to United Nations statistics.
Staff Sgt. Caleb Duncan, of Vancouver, Wash., recalls one child, a triple amputee, who was brought to battalion soldiers for medical care.
Duncan said it was one of the worst things he has seen in this war. “You don’t have to speak to put out the message: ‘Look, the Americans didn’t do this, the Taliban did.’ ”
An ingenious enemy
Those who plant the IEDs are often elusive, quick to duck under trees that hide them from overhead surveillance cameras. Under cover, they can drop their weapons or bomb-making materials, put on new clothing and transform themselves from fighters to villagers. They are also canny scavengers, even turning a staple of Army field life – the foil wrappers that encase Meals Ready-to-Eat – into the outer casing for a pressure plate.
U.S. soldiers are wary of contributing to the bomb-making materials. They are under orders to cut up any big, empty plastic jugs, such as those that contain protein powder, before leaving them in the base trash. No one wants those jugs smuggled off base and packed with explosives.
“It’s the little things that tend to bite you,” said 2nd Lt. Kenneth Shogry, from New Milford, Conn. “What we look at as trash might be a resource for the insurgents.”
Some of the IEDs are triggered by radio signals. Some are touched off by command wires operated by insurgents hiding nearby. Most are “victim activated,” with a trigger mechanism set off by body weight.
Soldiers have learned survival can be a matter of inches.
While on patrol, they carefully place their boots in the footprints created by those who walk just in front of them. Veer slightly to the left or right and you could lose your legs – or your life – to a bomb.
Soldiers have also had to adjust their battle tactics.
An infantry soldier under fire will typically take cover or close in quickly on the enemy and try to take them out. But soldiers here have found insurgent bullets may be part of a plan to bait them into an IED. If they take cover, the soldiers might set off a bomb planted by a wall or tree. If they try to pursue an insurgent, they might be crossing a belt of bombs primed to explode.
So, when under attack, soldiers often take a knee and hope the insurgents aren’t good shots.
“They are shooting at us to try to force us to go in a certain direction, which is more dangerous than if you just stay put,” said Volk, the command sergeant major. “The men have to display a lot of discipline.”
Surviving these patrols sometimes feels like winning the lottery.
Sgt. Peter Butler, of Portland, was shook up by two blasts that injured other soldiers. Late in the summer, he stepped directly on a trigger device, and he could feel a whoosh of air as his foot went down.
That bomb malfunctioned.
“The blasting cap went off, but the DET (detonator cord) didn’t go,” Butler said. “That’s the only reason I got two little legs left.”
On patrol, soldiers wear a mandatory piece of gear widely distributed only since last year – Kevlar diapers.
With the aid of Velcro and belt loops, the troops wrap the diapers around their crotches to shield the upper body core and the groin. In some bad blasts, they have been effective. That’s earned the diapers the respect of soldiers, some of whom have told their buddies they would rather be left to die on the battlefield than be robbed of their sex life, as well as their legs, by a bomb.
“I have heard that many, many times,” said Cpl. Keith Robinson, of Lewiston. “Some might be joking. Some might be serious. It’s kind of an awkward statement to begin with.”
Since arriving in Afghanistan in the spring, Rogne estimates he has found more than 150 IEDs while walking the lead position on patrols. But he’s not keeping score.
“A lot of people thought I was after numbers, how many IEDs I could find,” Rogne said. “It’s not about that. When you have a group you work with hit by IEDs, and you see how it affects people’s lives, you don’t ever want anyone to step on one again. So the reason I go out front is that’s where I can best be utilized.”
Rogne, the son of a Colville logger, joined the Army when he was 18. He is on his fourth combat tour. In the run-up to a mission, he spends hours studying battlefield maps, photos and intelligence to better anticipate where bombs might be placed.
He started this year’s tour of duty with the 1st Battalion’s Blackhawk Company, and helped his platoon survive a difficult start to the summer without any wounds from IEDs. Then in July, he got an unexpected call to Combat Outpost Mushan in the western part of Panjwai to serve as the lead enlisted officer for Apache Company’s 2nd Platoon.
Rogne was assigned to replace Sgt. 1st Class Edgar Barrera, who had been severely wounded on a nightmarish July 7 patrol. Around 7 a.m. that morning, stepping outside of a compound that had been searched for signs of insurgents, Barrera detonated a bomb. The explosion claimed both his legs and an arm, and caused shrapnel and other wounds to a half-dozen soldiers near the site of the blast.
There were gunbattles, and another bomb explosion severed both feet of one soldier.
Late in the day, Sgt. Juan Navarro, a team leader who had been caught in the first blast but demanded to stay with his soldiers, sat down to take a break.
Navarro chose a piece of turf that had been walked over by many other soldiers and swept for bombs with three different devices, according to several soldiers.
His weight set off another bomb blast, and he died from his wounds.
Often, after a patrol, Apache Company soldiers would hit the free-weights set up under a tent near their living quarters. The often-intense physical workouts offer troops a kind of therapy, helping them cope with tensions that build up during a deployment.
After the July 7 patrol, the gym tent was largely empty, recalls 1st Sgt. Michael Robinson. Instead, soldiers had a quiet day of grieving.
“You could see them giving each other hugs when someone would break down for a few minutes. You could see them draw together.”
Soon, patrols resumed back through the bomb-laden trails.
“It’s a mindset,” Robinson said. “If you let the fear take hold, it will rule you, and a bad thing will happen. If you understand that the IED is just an obstacle – something that is just there: You can identify it. Go around it. Or take it out. But you have a choice.”
Rogne helped the platoon build confidence.
In a simulated IED field erected next to the base’s sand-filled barriers, Rogne explained the capabilities, limitations and quirks of three different mine-detection systems. Soldiers then went to work trying to find disarmed bombs that had been retrieved from the road.
Through August, the schedule of the missions picked back up, with the soldiers threading their way through one band of bombs after another without taking any new casualties. Meanwhile, they struck back at the insurgents, killing some who sought to spring ambushes.
“Rogne helped,” said Staff Sgt. Bill Kearney. “But also time, and a few good firefights to get back at the enemy.”
In mid-September, the Army wanted to build a new route through an area just outside Babinek. So the company commander tapped 2nd Platoon to carry out a “disruptive mission” that would hopefully create a diversion big enough to shift the insurgents’ focus away from engineers who were making new road cuts.
The first half-hour of the platoon’s patrol was quiet. Then Rogne found his first bomb. He spotted it cached inside a shallow depression in front of an abandoned compound. This was the same area where Barrera had stepped on the IED in July.
On this day, that spot held no surprises.
An Army demolition expert on the patrol checked out the site and uncovered the wire, trigger and a blue plastic bottle packed with explosives. He executed a “BIP” – blow-in-place – that sent a cloud of dust kicking up out of the roadway.
By the end of the morning, Rogne had found three more IEDs.
Several insurgents sought to counterattack but were chased off by Army helicopter gunships.
The platoon settled in for a noon lunch break.
On that day, safe and secure.