Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates recently requested an additional $2.4 billion in an effort to defeat the impact of improvised explosive devices. About 70 percent of American deaths from the war are from IEDs.
Coalition bomb experts from the United Kingdom are deployed to Camp Adder in the southern Iraq province of Dhi Qar to deal with these explosive devices. Sgt. Ray Ollier from Devon England said, “If we can keep IEDs clear, they [the Coalition] can do their job.” Sgt. Ollier works with Capt. Chris Yates and Staff Sgt. Stewart Kerr to handle explosive ordnance along Route Tampa, a main supply route in Iraq named by the Coalition.
Tribune correspondent MyLinh Shattan spoke with these Coalition forces about the details of such an important and risky business.
Tell us about your assignment?
Yates: I was commissioned in 2000 into the Royal Logistics Corps and my home is in southwest England. I’m an ammunition technical officer and I’m responsible for providing IED response for the multinational forces of certain areas along Route Tampa. If an IED is found then I’ll go. The American forces have various measures they will conduct to secure the route.
How frequently do you get called in for an IED?
Yates: In this area, we’re dealing with about one IED a week on average. That could be a single IED, an array or link device, a targeted device. Generally the targeted [device] would be along Route Tampa.
When you’re called in for an IED, what’s the procedure?
Yates: I work through an Australian battle group who will then task me, tell me where they think they suspect an IED is and who’s on the ground with it. I’ll then go out towards it generally by road with a Romanian escort. There are Romanian forces in the coalition and one of the jobs the Romanians have is to provide an escort for my team. We’ll deploy to the job. At the job I have numerous techniques to render it safe. The principal things are to assess what type of device it is, what the threat it, evaluate what I’m going to do. I use remote means; I use a robot to investigate and disrupt the target. And then I walk down the road in my bomb suit, rendering whatever it is safe.
How does the robot work and what does it mean to “render safe”?
Yates: To render something safe means you got an IED and it’s sophisticated. It needs terrorists to make it work and it can either function when he tells it to or when the victim initiates it. What I look to do is to break his circuit using an explosive weapon. Hopefully my weapon will work faster than the electric circuit within the device. We have a variety of weapons and they’re generally called disrupters, such as water jets, rounds; the idea is to break the circuit before the electrical circuit initiates the device.
Have you made progress against IEDs and mitigating that threat?
Yates: Definitely that’s increasing. We have methods that improve and give us a better chance to understand where devices will be and if we can render them safe. But terrorists take tactics [and adjust] just as we will.
How is the personal challenge with your deployment?
Yates: It’s the not the best of situations. I’d kind of like to see my wife and see my dog, a chocolate Labrador.
Do you ever fear for your life?
Yates: We often try not to think of that. There have been casualties. The whole thing we do is based around a threat assessment that’s based on minimizing the risk of the operation.
I’m quite impressed with U.S. forces who do a minimum of a year tour; they make a massive commitment, it’s a significant impact on their life. It needs to be appreciated.
Where’s home and what do you do?
Kerr: I’m from Perth in Scotland. I’m a field staff sergeant and I’m part of an engineer squadron based in England. As a Royal Engineer Search Advisor, RESA, I’m in a command of a team of seven to eight men and effectively what we do is search for the IEDs. If someone says there’s special activity around an area, we move forward into the area and search for the IED. As soon as we find it we hand it over to Capt. Yates.
In high risk search, we are the only ones specially trained in this procedure. There are various teams deployed in Basra City, the air station there. My team is here in Tallil working in conjunction with the Americans.
When we get a call, we get as much info as we can. We then make a plan from here, our base location. Then we move from here in any means of transport, by vehicle or helicopter, to the task location. As soon as we get to the location, we speak to the guys on the ground and get more information from them and then carry out our procedures to render safe the device, IED or whatever is that we find.
What are your greatest fears?
Kerr: The equipment we have is quite remarkable to be honest, and eradicates most of the threat from the insurgent. We’re very, very well protected. The threat is always there; you can never really negate it. Personally, I trust my team and the team trusts me. As far as we’re concerned, we’re quite happy.
I’ve been in service 20 years now. I’ve done this role in Northern Ireland. I’ve done it as a team commander and searcher, so I’m quite fortunate to have a wealth of knowledge. I was kind of forced.
Has Iraq assumed responsibility handling IEDs?
Kerr: When we first arrived, we were using primarily multi-national forces for search operations and the IED clearance. But now we’ve migrated a lot more toward multi-national forces including the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police Forces. I’ve seen a lot of that now, especially in my tour in Basra City, cooperation with Iraqi Police and Iraqi Army. I’ve certainly seen progress in the Iraqi Army and Police which is good to see; that’s better for them as a whole.
What’s your impression of the situation?
Kerr: Things are moving forward here in Iraq. We’re upbeat, positive, we’re happy enough. The more we find and exploit these devices, the more lives we save. We do a lot of training here in Tallil with Americans, Australians, Romanians, Brits. We’re all constantly training and evaluating our experience to come up with ways to interact against the insurgent, to defeat him. We’ve done that a lot out here and it saves lives.
We’re living the dream out here. You can quote me on that one … and it would put a few smiles on our faces.
The Tribune arranges these interviews with service members through U.S. Central Command. MyLinh Shattan can be reached at email@example.com.