This month alone, eight Fort Bliss soldiers have died in Afghanistan.
While the deaths make up two separate incidents, the eight men share a similar bond. They were all killed by improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
According to Dana Pittard, the outgoing Commanding General of Fort Bliss, IEDs have become the weapon of choice in Afghanistan. It’s a stark contrast from the early years of military engagement in Afghanistan.
While Iraq was a war zone littered with IEDs, in the early 2000s, it wasn’t unusual to have months in which fewer than 20 IEDs would be found in all of Afghanistan, according to Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) numbers.
In 2009, the battle changed.
“As the Taliban began to lose more and more of their troops through fights with us, they had to get more stand-offish,” said Pittard. “That’s part of it.”
Pittard said with a smaller fighting force, the Taliban turned to IEDs. JIEDDO numbers support that reasoning, showing a peak of more than 16,000 encounters with IEDs in 2011.
For those like Staff Sgt. Elijah Sedig, those IEDs are a matter of life and death when deployed. Sedig became a Purple Heart recipient when he was struck with shrapnel. A grenade detonated near him in Afghanistan. Days later, he was back at work, disarming bombs.
“Getting shot at in a firefight doesn’t even compare,” explained Sedig. “There is nothing in civilian life that I’ve experienced that can even come close to the stress.”
Sedig said he doesn’t know of anyone who has been to Afghanistan who isn’t aware of the damage that an IED can do. It’s a common battle wound.
According to Sedig, who is part of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team, approaching an IED to disarm it is nerve-wracking.
“Every time I got done, I was physically just drained,” said Sedig. “There were times I might have to run two or three (IEDs) in a day. Some of my fellow team leaders actually ran 14 in one day, one incident.”
That’s when training comes into play. With battles changing, Fort Bliss training has, too. According to Sedig, “The training is as important as the person doing the work.”
That’s why special teams train in counter-IED tactics.
Sedig said more training is happening now than when he first began in the military. He said new equipment has helped give more confidence to soldiers, too.
Lt. Col. David Richkowski is a planner for the 1st Armored Division. He tells ABC-7 that his job over the next few weeks will be to put together a realistic 19-day training exercise. The exercise will consist of role-playing and realistic combat situations. Soldiers will have to identify and avoid IEDs.
He said it’s a type of training that more and more military posts are moving towards.
“I think most installations are trying to do something similar, to better prepare their units as they’re ready to deploy,” said Richkowski.
Corya James, a former soldier turned counter-IED integration sales team leader, said that his work is serious business. He is currently working with Fort Bliss to help train soldiers on counter-IED tactics.
“When they deploy, they’re going to see it every day,” said James. “They have to take the attitude and approach that they will see it.”