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The Art, Science, and Carpentry of Explosives


For many Americans, talking about IEDs is like talking about IUDs (Intrauterine Device).  Homemade explosives and sex education are off limits.  The discussions are taboo not for practical or security purposes, but because of sensibilities.  The arguments are nearly identical.  Yet if you Google “homemade explosives”, and follow the rabbit hole, it would take several years to learn it all.  The “IED cat” was running wild before computers were made.  Vietnam veterans experienced countless IEDs, and improvised bombs were around before the grandmother of any living person was born.  Interestingly, the troops I have been with in Iraq and Afghanistan nearly universally want this information disseminated, while many people far away from the jagged edge are afraid to discuss bombs.
The above two photos show a simple demolitions tool chest used by 4-4Cav Soldiers. The main ingredients are C-4 blocks, detonation cord, and accessories.

C-4 is plastic, moldable around targets, and cuttable like putty.  Its uses are countless.  Some formulas and placements require precision and detailed training.  Other times, C-4 is used as a sledgehammer, for blasting through walls, or cutting down trees, or blasting open safes to steal gold.  C-4 will work underwater without air, or during a dark Alaskan winter night, or at noon under the direct sun in a blazing Iraqi desert.  American military explosives should operate from -80º to +165º Fahrenheit.  C-4 and nearly all US military explosives can take abuse, whether thermally, kinetically, or just from sitting in a bunker for forty years, yet they reliably deliver the same punch so that constants in practical usage calculations do not vary.   For C-4, the magic ingredients for detonation are heat and shock.  When the reaction starts, decomposition occurs at nearly 27,000 feet per second.  That’s about 5 miles/second, roughly 10 times faster than an M-16 bullet, or 24 times the speed of sound at STP (Standard Temperature and Pressure). 

The detonation cord is equally impressive, and its uses are limited only by the agility of one’s imagination.  US military det-cord looks almost exactly like US military time fuse.  Time fuse contains a slow-burning powder, while det-cord contains a very powerful explosive brisant enough to detonate any common military charge.  Among other things, det-cord is commonly used to simultaneously explode separate charges of C4, TNT, or dynamite.

When C-4 gets shot, it splats, but doesn’t explode.  A machine-gun bullet will not cause detonation.  Thousands of bullets fly around here and Soldiers and their gear are shot regularly.  Nobody would want to stand next to someone who is carrying explosives if a random bullet would result in a smoking crater.  When C-4 catches fire, it just burns, which also is good because my tent has loads of C-4 and det-cord just steps away from my pillow.


Tape and det-cord are used to build a ladder charge before a dangerous mission.


Sympathetic detonation can occur when an explosion is sufficiently close to another charge that it causes a secondary detonation.  When two landmines are side-by-side, both can explode.  Sometimes this is undesired, but other times it’s part of the plan.  For instance, the enemy might double or triple stack anti-tank mines to destroy heavily armored vehicles.  Our aircraft sometimes bomb landing zones to disrupt or explode IEDs before helicopters land.  While clearing small footpaths, five strands of det-cord are sufficient to cause sympathetic detonations of most enemy IEDs, or at least to disrupt the firing mechanisms.  And so our people build ladder charges, so called because they look like ladders.


It takes two men about thirty minutes to make a ladder charge this size.


On the left is my tentmate Sergeant Edward Wooden, from Johnstown, Pennsylvania. He has done 10 years in the Army as a “12B,” or combat engineer.  Sergeant Wooden spent six years in the National Guard and then went on active duty.  This is his fourth combat tour, the previous three were in Iraq.  Sergeant Wooden said his first tour saw a difficult fight in Ramadi 2005 – 2006, with the 876th Engineer Battalion in 28th Infantry Division.  His second tour was in Baghdad during 2006 – 2007, another rough time and place.  His third tour was in Babil from 2008 – 2009 with the 9th Engineer Battalion in the 172nd Infantry Brigade. He said this tour was easy because Iraq had transformed into a completely different country by 2009.  As for his current tour in Afghanistan, Sergeant Wooden says this is tougher than Baghdad, and just as tough as Ramadi, which is saying a lot.

The Soldier kneeling in the above photo is the boss for this seven-man “sapper” team.  (The term sapper refers—in numerous armies–to combat engineers.)  Sergeant First Class (SFC) James Smirl is from Ashgrove, Missouri.  SFC Smirl has spent 16 years in the Army as a combat engineer.  This is his second combat tour.  His first was during the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003—which feels approximately a thousand years ago for people who keep coming back.  On that first tour, SFC Smirl was with the 14th Engineer Battalion, attached to the 4th Infantry Division (4th ID).  The 4th ID originally intended to invade Iraq through Turkey, but at the last minute Turkey changed its political mind about letting US Armed Forces use its air and land space.  So the 4th ID had to quickly sail their gear all the way around to Kuwait.  Days late and coming from the opposite direction they originally planned, the 4th ID pushed north into Iraq from Kuwait.  SFC Smirl ended up in Samara and spent April 2003 to April 2004 in the fight.  Back then, American vehicles had very little armor, and it was politically incorrect to dare question the wisdom of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, or say words like “hillbilly armor.”  During a mission, Smirl’s convoy unknowingly drove by a 155mm artillery warhead.  It exploded about halfway down the convoy and wounded a driver.  The gunner took shrapnel to the face, lost some fingers, and both legs below the knees.  Small-arms fire instantly erupted from a nearby fruit grove.  Smirl rendered first aid to the wounded gunner.  During the fight, Smirl saw an enemy fighter make a run.  Smirl shot and killed the man, and then he and another Soldier searched the body.  For his quick actions, SFC Smirl was awarded the Bronze Star with “V” (valor).  The gunner died on the helicopter.

I asked SFC Smirl how his team is faring here in Afghanistan.  Several have been lightly wounded but only one badly enough to go home.  Private First Class (PFC) Nick Ortlieb had been in Afghanistan for two weeks, on his first combat tour, when he stepped on an IED pressure plate.  A Soldier with a metal detector had just walked by the IED, picked up a faint signal and decided it was nothing.  Luckily for PFC Ortlieb, the Afghan IEDs are not reliably made.  The bomb he stepped on was in wet soil—the raining season was just ending—and it only partially detonated, making a compound fracture to Ortlieb’s ankle.  IEDs are strange like that.  Sometimes when an IED detonates, you end up spending the next few hours picking up body parts, and possibly hitting other IEDs in the process of MEDEVAC (medical evacuation).  Other times someone steps on an IED and survives to tell a Superman story–where he flies through the air or even does a somersault and lives without amputations.  But more often than not, legs, testicles and arms get removed.  For PFC Ortlieb, he had been in combat for only two weeks when he was injured. Others who have survived multiple tours without being hurt might be tempted to think that their high level of skill is what has kept them intact, but a huge factor is simply luck.


In the middle of the above photo is another tentmate, Sergeant Diego Murillo.  Sergeant Murillo was born in Costa Rica, but grew up Missoula, Montana.  Sergeant Murillo looks like he could bench-press a water buffalo.  He’s spent 5.5 years in the Army and is also a sapper, having done two tours in Iraq with 9th Engineers, including East Baghdad from 2006 to 2007, another tough time and place.  During 2008 to 2009, he was back in Diyala Province doing route clearance with 9th Engineers.  Now on his third combat tour, Sergeant Murillo is already becoming an old veteran, though his easygoing style does not hint at the dangerous path that led him here.


On the left is another of my tentmates, Specialist (SPC) Ian Stauffer, from York, Pennsylvania.  SPC Stauffer is 27 years old, and a sapper on his first combat tour.  He volunteered for Afghanistan.  SPC Stauffer explained that his paternal grandmother was a full-blooded Susquehanna Indian, while the other side of his family is Pennsylvania Dutch who have been in America for 300 years and fought in nearly all the wars, including the Civil War, World War I & II, Vietnam, and now here in Afghanistan.  Stauffer explained that his father’s side is Roman Catholic, his mother’s side United Church of Christ.  I mention this because SPC Stauffer was born in 1984 and became Muslim in about 1999.  I asked how in the world someone from his background up and became a Muslim.  SPC Stauffer explained that he’d always had a passion for religion, and after studying many of them he felt that Islam was right in his heart.  When he decided to join the US Army, SPC Stauffer said the recruiter advised him to keep quiet about his religion. After some time he didn’t feel right about hiding his beliefs and so he is now open about it.  This month is Ramadan, a time when Muslims around the world fast during daylight hours, and are supposed to concentrate on their faith more than everyday concerns.  SPC Stauffer is not fasting due to being in combat, which is said to be permissible if he makes up the time later.  Stauffer said his wife is from West Virginia and her sister’s husband is a Lutheran youth minister, so they have interesting family reunions and occasional awkward times when two prayers are said before meals.

Just two days before the mission we were preparing for, Sergeant Wooden and SPC Stauffer were in a MaxPro armored vehicle when it was hit with an 82mm recoilless rifle.  The 82s are impressive and can easily penetrate the armor and kill everyone in a vehicle, but fortunately the strike hit the trunk and the trunk standoff buffered the blast.  The 82s are leaving a lot of people with TBI—traumatic brain injury—or worse.  Severe TBI seems to lead to a life of confusion.  Personally, I don’t worry about the dying part, but it would be bad to get severe TBI and no longer be able write or make photographs.  In this case, Sergeant Wooden and SPC Stauffer were fine, The 82mm did not take them out, TBI or otherwise, and so they were still good-to -go on the air assault called Operation Pyrite Pike.

2011-08-19-023957-1000Sergeant Edward Wooden carrying ladder charge and other gear during the mission.

The sapper team prepped their explosives in another tent, and then packed the charges by their cots in our tent.  Operation Pyrite Pike would soon begin.  We loaded up the helicopters after midnight and flew into the heart of a Taliban stronghold.

As the mission unfolded and night turned to daytime, there were shootouts and other normal dramas.  On the second day, while Sergeant Wooden and Specialist Stauffer prepared to clear a path of bombs, there was an accident.  They were using an APOB (Anti Personnel Obstacle Breaching system), which consists of two 60-pound backpacks for a total of 120 pounds.  After assembly, the system consists of rocket that drags out a line of grenades to about 100 meters.  It falls to the ground, the grenades detonate—plenty loud—and clear a small path.  Sometimes you’ll hear a sympathetic detonation of an IED.

IR-Helicopter-2ccFinal1000Specialist Ian Stauffer (L) and Sergeant Edward Wooden (R) during Operation Pyrite Pike.

When Stauffer and Wooden, who had prepared the ladder charges in the previous images, tried to launch the latest APOB, matters did not go well.  Sergeant Wooden said to me, “The initiator pin broke off into my hand.”  After he pulled the pin, the rocket should have launched after a safety delay, giving them time to take cover.  Launch failed.  Sergeant Wooden should have waited 30 minutes, he said, but he faced a gambler’s dilemma.  There had been maybe twenty firefights since yesterday, and so waiting carried risks.  He waited about two minutes and moved forward to inspect the APOB.  He grabbed the APOB and the rocket launched, burning his hand.  If Sergeant Wooden had not been wearing gloves, his hand would have been fried.  The rocket glanced off Ian’s leg.  APOB rockets are very loud.  In the flame, noise and dust, Ian thought his leg was blown off.  A couple inches’ difference and at a minimum he would be missing part of his leg, or worse he would have been shot down range.  The rocket continued to climb and both men were still on their feet (despite Ian thinking his leg was gone), and they dived for cover just in time.  When these rockets land, they should explode after a delay, but both men said this one exploded on landing.  
Sergeant Wooden caught a slight frag but was fine.  From my position, it was just a very loud explosion but we had no idea of the close call until we walked over.  The men continued the mission, and much later that night the helicopters came back for us, and we flew back to base.

(Note: I’ve been told that some of these combat stories end abruptly, leaving readers hanging.  Combat always leaves you hanging because it never ends while you are here, or when you go home.  Combat tattoos itself on your brain.  The endings are not storybook.  Since the night we landed by helicopter on Operation Pyrite Pike, at least twelve Coalition troops have been killed in combat.  About 80 Coalition troops have died this month so far.  Hundreds of others have been wounded this August.  The enemy dies at a far greater rate.  Nothing ended here.  I just stopped writing.)

Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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