route clearance

anonymous asked:

Word on the street is you want to be in the army or something you want to kill people or something? Why?

Well the main job I want involves construction and route clearance. Though it would also be awesome to be an operator, killing or capturing high profile assholes who are known to cause harm to innocent people.

In this photo, my men are taking a sit-down and enjoying an MRE. After an arduous day of running some route clearance drills, I’d say they earned it.

Well, actually, they probably deserve something better than an MRE…

This time of year, the temperature in White Sands goes over a hundred and the humidity increases as well (it is, after all, the monsoon season.) That didn’t stop us from hiking in full gear (including a helmet and body armor) for miles along a country road looking for (dummy) land mines and IEDs. We also went on mounted patrols with our vehicles, which was a bit more pleasant because our HMMWVs have great air conditioning.

I’m told this practice will come in handy when we deploy to Afghanistan. 

Virtual Route Clearance! That was the name of the game for today’s training. We drove down to a site outside Fort Bliss where we climbed into these hollowed-out semi trailers equipped with high-tech virtual reality gear to simulate a route clearance convoy. I got to be convoy commander for this exercise, and believe me, it’s no easy task. I had everyone calling their information to me at the same time and I had to maintain order and communication throughout the whole thing. Still a neat exercise. Though it did fit a bit uncomfortably, I must say I enjoyed the wearing the 360-headset :-)

We were short one guy, though. One of my soldiers got into a bar fight over the weekend (it took three taser shots to subdue him, according to the police report) and landed himself in jail. Not cool.

View with a bang…

U.S. Army soldiers with Task Force Thor Route Clearance Patrol from 23rd Engineering Company, Airborne detonate an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) that they discovered during a day-long route clearance mission July 7, 2010 near Khakriz, Afghanistan. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

2

Expecting explosives, finding chemical arms.

US Air Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal robot nicknamed Johnny Five, is blasted backward into mid-air while investigating an improvised explosive device during a route clearance operation with the Annihilators of Company A, 2nd Platoon, Special Troops Battalion, 1st Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, in Kirkuk, Iraq.

(U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Margaret C. Nelson, 115th MPAD, 20 JAN 2008. Part 2 of article by C.J. Chivers, NY Times, 14 OCT 2014. Part 1. Also watch the Times Documentary video with soldier interviews.)

The cache that contaminated Sergeant Duling’s team was not the first discovery of chemical weapons in the war. American troops had already found thousands of similar warheads and shells.

These repeated encounters sprang from a basic feature of the occupation: After the invasion, Iraq became a battlefield laced with hidden, lethal traps — most tied to the country’s protracted history in the global arms trade.

Iraq had attacked Iran in late 1980, expecting quick victory against a military sapped of officers by Iran’s revolutionary purges. Mr. Hussein also thought Iranians might rise against their new religious leaders.

He miscalculated. By June 1981, as Iran blunted Iraq’s incursions and unleashed its air force against Iraqi cities, Mr. Hussein was seeking new weapons. He created a secret program — known as Project 922 — that produced blister and nerve agents by the hundreds of tons, according toIraq’s confidential declarations in the 1990s to the United Nations.

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Iranian soldiers wearing gas masks southeast of Basra, Iraq, in 1987, during the Iran-Iraq war. In the 1980s, while at war with Iran, Saddam Hussein created a secret program that produced blister and nerve agents by the hundreds of tons. (Associated Press)

War provided urgency; Mr. Hussein added the cash. Western nations, some eager to contain Iran’s Islamic revolutionary state after the American hostage crisis from 1979 to 1981, lent Iraq support.

With remarkable speed, Iraq built a program with equipment and precursor purchases from companies in an extraordinary array of countries, eventually including the United States, according to its confidential declarations.

German construction firms helped create a sprawling manufacturing complex in the desert south of Samarra and three plants in Falluja that made precursor ingredients for chemical weapons. The complex near Samarra, later renamed Al Muthanna State Establishment, included research labs, production lines, testing areas and storage bunkers.

MUCH OF THE STOCKPILE WAS EXPENDED OR DESTROYED, BUT THOUSANDS OF CHEMICAL SHELLS AND WARHEADS REMAINED.

Iraq produced 10 metric tons of mustard blister agent in 1981; by 1987 its production had grown 90-fold, with late-war output aided by two American companies that provided hundreds of tons of thiodiglycol, a mustard agent precursor. Production of nerve agents also took off.

Rising production created another need. Mr. Hussein’s military did not possess the munitions for dispersing chemical agents. So it embarked on another buying spree, purchasing empty ordnance — aviation bombs from a Spanish manufacturer, American-designed artillery shells from European companies, and Egyptian and Italian ground-to-ground rockets — to be filled in Iraq.

As these strands of a chemical weapons program came together, Iraq simultaneously accumulated enormous stores of conventional munitions.

Much of the chemical stockpile was expended in the Iran-Iraq war or destroyed when the weapons programs were dismantled after the Persian Gulf war of 1991. But thousands of chemical shells and warheads remained, spicing the stockpile of conventional ordnance left unsecured in 2003 after Iraq’s military collapsed as the United States invaded.

Chemical munitions can resemble conventional munitions — a problem compounded by Iraq’s practice of mislabeling ordnance to confuse foreign inspectors and, with time, by rust, pitting and dirt.

These were the circumstances that combined against ordnance disposal teams as they pursued their primary duty in the war: defeating makeshift bombs.

Almost all of the bombs were made with conventional ordnance or homemade explosives. Here and there, among the others, were bombs made from chemical arms.

‘Bit’ by blister agent in roadside bomb.

U.S. Marine Capt. Stephen T. Campbell, commanding officer of 1st Tank Battalion Commanding, assesses chemical barrels set ablaze by the Marines of 1st Tanks during an operation outside Rawah, Iraq. The barrels were found by Marines conducting routine searches in the desert for weapons caches and other insurgent activities within the Al Anbar province.

(Photo by Lance Corporal Charles Howard, 18 SEP 2007. Part 5 of article by C.J. Chivers, NYTimes, 14 OCT 2014. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Also watch the Times Documentary video with soldier interviews.)

Once American forces began finding large numbers of M110 shells, it was all but inevitable that disposal teams would be exposed to blister agent.

This happened for the first time, several techs said, on Sept. 25, 2006, after militants detonated two roadside bombs near an American patrol in southern Baghdad.

Two Navy techs — Chief Petty Officer Ted Pickett and Petty Officer Third Class Jeremiah M. Foxwell — arrived at the blast site.

They found three damaged shells, decided against destroying them in a populated area, and drove them to a demolition range beside their base, according to Mr. Foxwell, who left the Navy in 2008.

There they discovered that one 155-millimeter shell had leaked a noxious liquid. As he inhaled its vapors, Petty Officer Foxwell was instantly alarmed. “It smelled overbearingly like extreme toxicity,” he said recently. “The hair stood up on the back of my neck.”

The shell contained a brown crystalline substance they had thought was a homemade explosive. A swab with detection paper tested positive for sulfur mustard.

The sailors radioed for a technical escort unit, then put on gloves and gas masks and wrapped the shell in plastic and duct tape. They waited. Hours passed. No chemical specialists arrived.

Mustard agent acts slowly on victims. Symptoms of exposure often do not appear for hours, and intensify for days.

Late that afternoon, with the sailors worried about the effects of mustard inhalation, they destroyed the shell with an explosive charge and entered the Army clinic on their base.

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Jeremiah M. Foxwell at his home in Washington. In 2006 while a Navy petty officer, he and another technician handled a leaking sulfur-mustard shell. “It smelled overbearingly like extreme toxicity,” Mr. Foxwell said. “The hair stood up on the back of my neck.” (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

Within two days, lesions formed in Petty Officer Foxwell’s nasal passages and upper airway, according to his medical records, which noted exposure to “chemical vapors — mustard gas” from a “terrorist chemical weapon.”

But the care he would receive proved to be much less than that mandated under the Army’s treatment order.

The clinic did not perform the required blood and urine tests on Petty Officer Foxwell, according to his medical records. (His former team chief did not reply to written questions.)

Both men were returned to duty within days, though Mr. Foxwell said his breathing remained labored and his chest hurt.

Dr. Dave Edmond Lounsbury, a former Army colonel who helped prepare for the chemical warfare victims expected at the war’s start in 2003, said in an interview that Petty Officer Foxwell’s care was inadequate.

“When you first meet the patient it is impossible to tell how he is going to do,” he said. “You have to get the blood work, monitor him and follow him over time.”

“To return them soon to duty?” he said. “I would be uncomfortable with that.”

Dr. Dave Edmond Lounsbury, a former Army colonel who helped prepare for the chemical-warfare victims expected at the war’s start in 2003, says that secrecy about troops later wounded by chemical weapons was extensive.Mac William Bishop/The New York Times

The Army opened an investigation into why the chemical specialists were delayed in arriving. An officer taking statements from participants forbade Petty Officer Foxwell from discussing the incident with his peers, restricting him from issuing a warning.

“I couldn’t walk outside and tell the next route-clearance team that this was out there,” he said. “It was just not natural, the idea of not sharing. If you experience a new battlefield weapon, it is your responsibility to share that actionable information with other teams.”

Mr. Foxwell said his Navy officer-in-charge did not visit them in the clinic or submit them for Purple Hearts. The insurgents’ use of a mustard shell faded from view. “No one in my chain of command, outside of Ted, discussed the incident with me again,” he said.

After Mr. Foxwell was honorably discharged, the Veterans Administration awarded him a partial medical disability in 2008, noting chronic respiratory infections and the development of asthma.

The incident was a foreboding sign. Several months later, on March 11, 2007, two Army techs were burned.

This second exposure occurred when a team from the 756th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company was summoned to a roadside bomb made with a rusty artillery shell.

The team remotely detonated the shell and continued to the usual steps: checking to ensure the bomb was rendered harmless, and collecting evidence.

Specialist Richard T. Beasley, one of the techs, picked up the broken shell, not knowing it contained mustard agent, and stowed it in a bin on their truck beside a fresh-air intake.

CHALLENGES IDENTIFYING CHEMICAL WEAPONS IN MAKESHIFT BOMBS

SUBTLE EXTERIOR DIFFERENCES
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Some of these shells found side by side near Camp Taji contained sulfur mustard, but some didn’t. Dark dampness and compromised casing of sulfur mustard leakage are visibly distinguishable in the above photograph.

Improvised bombs were often built from Iraq’s stockpile of old artillery rounds. Dirty and corroded exteriors made it difficult to tell whether shells were chemical or conventional.

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INTERIOR DIFFERENCES

At left, a M107 conventional round, with a solid explosive core. At right, a M110 chemical round containing a small amount of explosive in the very center of the round, surrounded by a liquid chemical agent. An X-ray of internal features was sometimes the only way to tell chemical from conventional shells. But X-rays are often impractical in a war zone.

A foul smell filled the truck and irritated the soldiers’ eyes. Suspecting the shell was the odor’s source, they stopped and heaved it into a deep canal.

The next day Specialist Beasley noticed his pant leg was wet. Mustard exposure symptoms had set in. “I undid my pants,” he said, “and felt the bubble.”

His fingers were tracing a seeping blister nearly the size of his hand.

His team leader, a former sergeant who asked that his name be withheld to protect his medical privacy, discovered a similar blister on his own left leg.

At first the soldiers were confused. Then, remembering the odorous shell, the sergeant felt a rising fear. If that was mustard, he thought, and was burning their skin, what might be happening in their lungs?

The patrol sped to an Army clinic at Camp Taji.

Had the techs been burned a few years earlier, the military medical system, which had prepared before the invasion for chemical warfare casualties, might have recognized their wounds. But in 2007, with blast and gunshot wounds the predominant causes of casualties, the doctors were not ready.

The Army’s medical orders were not followed. The staff rinsed the soldiers’ eyes, put cream on Specialist Beasley’s blister, and turned them away.

“I don’t know how to describe it, except to say: confusion,” the former sergeant said. “They really didn’t know what to do. The general feel was a whole lot of people shrugging their shoulders nonstop.”

The soldiers returned to Balad Air Base, where they were stationed, and visited another clinic.

A doctor ordered treatment with painkillers, antibiotics, burn cream and cleaning of the blisters — a sensation, the former sergeant said, “like a having a wire dog brush being rubbed across your leg.”

Specialist Beasley’s medical record shows that blood and urine specimens confirmed the mustard agent exposure. But the patients were not admitted to a hospital.

Mr. Lampier, then the soldiers’ commander, said he argued that they should be evacuated to the United States. “They were raw meat trying to heal in the worst environment imaginable,” he said. “There was dust and ash and smoke from the burn pits, and they had these wounds that shouldn’t have been exposed to that.”

The soldiers remained outpatients at a clinic.

SECRECY PREVAILED. VICTIMS SAID WORD OF THEIR EXPOSURE WAS PURPOSEFULLY SQUELCHED.

All the while secrecy prevailed. The military determined the soldiers had been burned by an M110 shell. Both victims said word of their exposure was purposefully squelched.

“We were absolutely told not to talk about it” by a colonel, the former sergeant said. The order, he added, included prohibitions against mentioning mustard agent when writing home.

The secrecy was so extensive that Dr. Lounsbury said he suspected officials hid the cases even from him and two other Army doctors assigned to prepare an official textbook on treating battlefield wounds.

Their book, “War Surgery in Afghanistan and Iraq: A Series of Cases, 2003-2007,” published in 2008, provided an inventory of traumas and treatments.

“We would have certainly included this case if we had known about it,” he said, “and not just for obvious medical reasons but because here was exactly the kind of wounds at the very heart of the reason the government sent our nation to war.”

The exposed soldiers’ objections to how their cases were handled grew after their commander submitted them for Purple Hearts.

The medals were disapproved by the headquarters of the American-led coalition “because the incident was deemed to have occurred after the I.E.D. was destroyed, and therefore was no longer considered to have been in contact with the enemy,” Tatjana Christian, an Army spokeswoman, said, using the abbreviation for an improvised explosive device.

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In March 2007, Specialist Richard T. Beasley picked up a broken shell, not knowing it contained mustard agent. The next day, while on another call, he noticed his pant leg was wet. Chemical blisters erupted on his leg. (Via Richard T. Beasley)

Purple Hearts, awarded for “wounds received in action,” according to their certificates, are a respected martial decoration. They are also contentious, given the subjectivity in defining “action.”

This is particularly true in the ordnance disposal field, because improvised bombs are dangerous before and after a foe sets them out. Bombs made with chemical ordnance pose more questions, because unlike explosives, chemical agents do not pass from dangerous to harmless in a flash.

TROOPS WOUNDED BY CHEMICAL DEVICES WERE TREATED INCONSISTENTLY: SOME RECEIVED THE MEDAL, OTHERS DID NOT.

Several techs pointed out that chemical munitions found in explosive devices were a result of conscious enemy action. But troops wounded by chemical devices were treated inconsistently: Some received the medal, others did not.

Under presidential order, Purple Hearts are awarded by each military service, which follow separate rules.

The Army regulation, another spokesman said, excludes soldiers wounded by chemical agents not released by an enemy. And because this exposure was caused when the soldiers destroyed the chemical device, he said, it did not qualify for Purple Hearts.

Mr. Beasley, who was honorably discharged in 2008, said the Army’s position was dismissive. “I remember it being, basically, that we wounded ourselves,” he said, which he called “baloney.”

“I didn’t put that shell in that hole,” he said. “And I did exactly what we were supposed to do when we dealt with an I.E.D.”

In the years since he returned to the United States and left the Army, he said, the Army has never contacted him again. His follow-up care amounted to one unsatisfying visit to a doctor near his last base.

“I went to a civilian doctor who didn’t actually believe I had been exposed to mustard agent,” he said. “That was the extent of my follow up.”