SHOSHARAK, Afghanistan — If luck is the battlefield’s final arbiter — the wild card that can trump fitness, training, teamwork, equipment, character and skill — then Lance Cpl. Ryan T. Mathison experienced its purest and most welcome form.
By C. J. CHIVERS
Published: January 23, 2010
On a Marine foot patrol here through the predawn chill of Friday morning, he stepped on a pressure-plate rigged to roughly 25 pounds of explosives. The device, enough to destroy a pickup truck or tear apart several men, was buried beneath him in the dusty soil.
It did not explode.
Lance Corporal Mathison’s weight triggered the detonation of one of the booby trap’s two blasting caps. But upon giving an audible pop and tossing small stones into the air, the device failed to ignite its fuller charge — a powerful mix of Eastern Bloc mortar rounds and homemade explosives spiked with motorcycle parts, rusty spark plugs and jagged chunks of steel.
Lance Corporal Mathison and several Marines near him were spared. So began a brief journey through the Taliban’s shifting tactics and the vagaries of war, where an experience at the edge of death became instead an affirmation of friendship, and in which a veteran Marine reluctantly assumed for a morning one of the infantry’s most coveted roles: that of the charmed man.
“Goddamn Matty, man,” said Cpl. Joshua D. Villegas, the patrol’s radio operator, allowing his eyes to roam over the intact Marine after the patrol had backed away from the dud. “Lucky son of a bitch.”
Homemade bombs, which the military calls improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.’s, have become the insurgents’ killing tool of choice in the Afghan war, a complement to the Taliban’s assault rifles, machine guns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. They serve as a battlefield leveler for elusive fighters who are wary of meeting Western forces head-on.
As their use has multiplied several-fold in the past two years, bomb-disposal specialists and American officers say, the Taliban’s bomb-making cells have sharpened their skills, moving away from smaller bombs in cooking pots to larger bombs encased in multigallon plastic water jugs, cooking-oil containers or ice coolers.
The bombs typically contain a slurry of fertilizer mixed with aluminum-based paint, and are triggered either via switches tripped by their victims or by a militant who detonates the weapon remotely when a victim moves near. Sometimes the insurgents use military-grade explosives from unexploded ordnance or conventional land mines.
No matter their determination or rising level of experience, those who manufacture or place the bombs still make mistakes, as evidenced by events on Friday morning on ground that the Marines call Cemetery Hill.
A foot patrol from Charlie Company, First Battalion, Third Marines left Patrol Base Brannon, a remote outpost in Helmand Province, at about 4:30 a.m., two hours ahead of the sun. The Marines said they were headed to a knoll to settle into an observation post beside a cemetery and watch over a road dubbed Blue Moon.
The cemetery, contained by mud walls and shaded by three tall trees, overlooks part of the small village of Shosharak, including a house from which the Taliban have often fired on Marine patrols. A Marine was killed here last year. It is bitterly contested ground.
The Marines reached the wall. About a half-hour before sunrise, Lance Cpl. Dario P. Quirumbay, 20, the assistant patrol leader, called softly to Lance Corporal Mathison, 21. He wanted to give him a thermal sight to scan the surrounding terrain.
Lance Corporal Mathison moved toward his friend. When he was a few feet away, the weight of his footfall depressed something hidden in the dirt. There was a muffled pop, a sound resembling a man stomping on a bottle. A small explosion — like that of firecracker — lifted his boot. Rocks peppered the two Marines.
“Don’t move!” Lance Corporal Quirumbay said.
Wary of stepping on another bomb, the patrol sat still until light glowed in the eastern horizon, when other Marines unfolded a metal detector and swept around their friend. The detector emitted a loud whine, signaling that a large bomb remained in the soil.
The Marines radioed for a team that specializes in dismantling explosives and backed off the knoll.
By the time the disposal team arrived, sweeping down Blue Moon with metal detectors, most of the Marines understood how lucky they had been. “We were what? Ten meters from it?” said Hospitalman Joseph R. Korte, 20, the patrol’s trauma medic.
“Five,” said Lance Corporal Hickson, 21.
Hospitalman Korte looked over at Lance Corporal Mathison, who was crouched against a wall. “That would have killed you and Q,” he said, using Lance Corporal Quirumbay’s nickname.
Lance Corporal Mathison is a big Marine, thick at the neck and light on his feet, and a veteran of a tour in Iraq’s Anbar Province. He seemed to be suspending belief. He listened to his friends in silence.
“I’m still calling it nothing,” he said at last. “I’m going with that it was nothing.”
He finished his thought. “Makes me feel better,” he said.
The rest of the patrol would not have it. “Well, Matty,” said Lance Corporal Hickson, his voice rising. “You might want to stop drinking, stop cussing.” Someone else mused about all the free beers Lance Corporal Mathison could expect.
Lance Cpl. Jacob M. Ohl, 19, interrupted. “Hickson was reading the Bible last night,” he said. “Been to church three times in his life, and last night he was reading the Bible.”
“I saved you,” Lance Corporal Hickson said.
He grinned. No one seemed sure what to think. They passed cigarettes, except for Lance Corporal Mathison: He pulled a lollipop from a plastic bag and popped it into his mouth.
He watched the two Marines in the disposal team working on the hill. They were busy, and moving cautiously. Lance Corporal Mathison had not wanted to accept that it was a bomb. He was beginning to shift his point of view.
“If this really was an I.E.D, then you ain’t drinking with me,” he said. “Because I’m done drinking. I’m going back to the way I was before I joined the Corps.”
An improvised bomb is a simple thing — a few batteries, a few wires, a blasting cap or two inserted into a stable explosive charge. A pressure plate serves as a switch. When depressed, the circuit is closed, the current from the batteries flows to the blasting cap, igniting the cap and setting off the full blast.
Ordnance specialists have a label for devices designed this way: victim-operated.
As simple as the system seems to be, there are many opportunities for malfunctions. But the Marines were puzzled. Up at the cemetery, a blasting cap had exploded, suggesting that the bomb maker had rigged a working circuit. Were it not for some unexplained fluke, these men knew, the bomb should have detonated, too.
Corporal Villegas, the radio operator, jogged over. “Matty, I love you,” he said as he ducked along the wall.
The arrival of the radio operator meant the Marines now had an infantryman’s oxygen: information. They could overhear radio traffic between the patrol leader and the disposal team.
Word began to reach them. The pressure plate had been connected to two 82-millimeter mortar rounds and a directional fragmentation charge weighing roughly 20 pounds. The meaning of that sunk in. If it had exploded, it would have killed more than the two nearest Marines.
“Oh God, dude,” one of the Marines said. Another strung together a profane phrase. The first word was dodged. The last was death.
“Oh Matty, get over here,” said Lance Corporal Hickson. The two men hugged. They slapped each other’s backs. They let go.
Lance Corporal Mathison was convinced. It really had been a bomb. “We’re all lucky, man,” he said. “That would have hurt us all.”
A few minutes later, Staff Sgt. Christopher J. Dreher, from the disposal team, called for the man who had stepped on the pressure plate. The staff sergeant had collected evidence from the bomb and rigged a small charge of plastic explosive to destroy what remained. He asked Lance Corporal Mathison to ignite the blast.
“If that I.E.D. had worked like it was supposed to?” the staff sergeant said. “Bye-bye, sweetheart.”
“Fire in the hole!” he shouted three times. Then the blast shook the earth. Dirt, stone and bits of metal showered the ground for several seconds — the end of a weapon that had nearly decimated a small patrol.