4 Mar 2010

Hot, tense and painstaking hours with a bomb disposal unit

Alex Thomson joins a bomb disposal unit in Afghanistan on a mission to clear just three IEDs from a main road.

It has been a hot, tense and painstaking six hours. The mission to clear just three IEDs from one of the main road in this sector.

Even last night we knew that this bomb disposal unit had received several 10-liners – ten line messages positively identifying an IED together with its grid ref location.

Upon arrival at the first one Sergeant Gareth Wood – “Woody” – goes into a well-honed ritual.

He’s been trained for this for almost eight years, longer than a vet, doctor or dentist. And you begin to see why. There are a number of approaches to the bomb. Often the first is simply to look at it – to stare and think very carefully indeed.

They call it the lonely walk as he walks out leaving the rest of the unit 30 yards back or so. Behind him will be another officer whose job it is to jam any electronic trigger mechanisms.

And then he gets to work. It is simple stuff. Scraping earth and stones with a knife to reveal perhaps the pressure plate or the battery pack or simply exposed wires. One mistake and it is over.

The joke around here is that you can only make two mistakes in this business: triggering a bomb and then volunteering for this work in the first place.

Sgt Wood’s job must remain secret for obvious reasons. But we can say it is low-tech stuff: blowing up devices from a distance or dragging them out of the earth on long wires and hooks again from a distance, to be detonated at the roadside.

Sgt Wood – a married man with twin three-year-old daughters – says he doesn’t dwell on what could be when he walks the lonely walk. Nor does he keep a tally of defused bombs – he says that too is bad luck.

What he does say is that it’s the best part of the job – that walk. Not least because each device is different. Number one this morning a rather new pressure-plate device, with home-made explosive mixture of ammonium nitrate and sugar. Number two, an old device with a wooden pin trigger, a release plate firing mechanism and a mix of ammonium nitrate and aluminium.

So they come in different sizes, charges, firing mechanisms with both bombers and diffusers trying to keep one step ahead. Soldiers here say they are seeing more and more IEDs and they are by far the biggest threat to British soldier’s lives.

No wonder they need more specialists like Sergeant Wood and no wonder too that the stress is so intense that one six-month tour is generally considered enough for life. That is, if they get back alive.