Staff. Sgt. Joshua Rickert hasn't just seen "The Hurt Locker," the award-winning film about an American bomb disposal squad in Iraq. He's living it — in Afghanistan.
Rickert and his team work for the Explosive Ordnance Disposal, or EOD, unit of the U.S. Air Force. Soldiers summon these men by radio when they find concealed bombs, a deadly threat to NATO forces fighting the Taliban. On Tuesday, Rickert's metal detector squealed when he ran it over a patch of earth at a chokepoint between two mud walls, a natural avenue where troops on patrol might choose to walk.
It was an IED, or improvised explosive device. Rickert saw parts of it poking above the soil.
"We're going to blow that right there," he said. Kneeling, Rickert laid down a brick of C4 explosive. He activated the one-minute fuse. Then he straightened up, weighed down by his flak jacket, helmet and other gear, and walked away — not hurrying, but fast enough.
Soldiers nearby stuck their fingers in their ears. The blast threw up black smoke. Rickert walked back to make sure the job was done.
The IED menace is constant. The Taliban hide crude bombs in culverts, doorways, walls, wherever they think Western troops will pass. Sometimes, soldiers clear an area, and insurgents go back and plant another bomb. Just about every U.S. soldier operating in support of a Marine offensive in the southern Afghan town of Marjah knows someone who was hit by an IED, often in a Stryker infantry vehicle. That someone got lucky, or was wounded, or died. A lot of soldiers were blown up themselves, recovered and went back to their unit.
Finding and destroying IEDs is, of course, slower and more nuanced than the high-octane version portrayed in the movie thriller directed by Kathryn Bigelow, which could make a run for the Oscars. In reality, Tuesday's operation in the village of Badula Qulp started well before the EOD team arrived at an area patrolled by a platoon of the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment of the 5th Stryker Brigade.
Afghan soldiers, coordinating with the Americans, had persuaded civilians to tell them about the location of suspected bombs.
Platoon leader Sgt. 1st Class Natividad Ruiz of Fort Smith, Ark., checked out a cluster around a crop field enclosed by walls. His men blew one up as the EOD team arrived. Ruiz showed off a "trophy" — a "pressure plate" device consisting of two pieces of flexible wood wrapped in plastic to keep out debris. Once buried and stepped on, the wood pushes metal contacts together. This completes an electrical circuit that sets off the explosives, which are often fertilizer-based.
"We find them, we verify that they're there, and then we take care of it, whether these guys do it or we do it," Ruiz said. "These little ones, they're probably not going to kill you. You might have a little Superman leg or a Bat wing, but that's about it."
The insurgents, he said, know that wounding, rather than killing, a soldier can slow down the entire unit because of the rush to evacuate him for emergency treatment.
No big suit
Ruiz said his men sometimes used grappling hooks to pull away brush around suspected bomb sites. He, too, has seen and liked "The Hurt Locker."
"We don't dress up in that big old suit," he says of the heavy bomb gear worn in the movie.
Rickert, of San Antonio, Texas, said his job was about teamwork, and that the movie's portrayal of "an EOD guy gone rogue" was inaccurate, though he acknowledged its entertainment value.
He recalled a scene in which the main character pulls up cords leading to a cluster of buried artillery shells. "I would walk away at that point," he said, adding that an accurate depiction of EOD men would show "six days of us doing nothing and 10 minutes of us working our ... off."
Another EOD man, Senior Airman Kyle Brown of Toledo, Ohio, felt the same way.
"Some of the things he does in the movie — quite out there," Brown said. "I wouldn't say we were that undisciplined. It makes us look like rebels in the military."The bomb disposal team rolled up to the scene Tuesday in what they called a Cougar, a vehicle that can withstand roadside bombs far better than a Stryker. They didn't use the Talon, a robot with treads and cameras that is operated with a joystick, because it wouldn't have been able to approach and examine the IEDs on the rough terrain.
Rickert recognized the signature of the bomb maker operating in the area by the type of batteries and other IED components. He showed a degree of respect for his unknown adversary, saying the bombs were well hidden.
"I take my time, go slow, and make sure I do everything for a reason," he said. And his career choice?
"I can't imagine doing anything else. It would be too boring."