Relentless toll to US troops of roadside bombs

The IED has caused over a third of the 3,000 American GI deaths in Iraq.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Almost every day, Sgt. First Class Joel Jacobs comes to the Third Infantry Division's "Warriors' Walk" at Fort Stewart, Ga. Among the eastern redbud trees – each commemorating one of the more than 300 division soldiers killed in Iraq – it's a chance for him to honor his fallen comrades.

Over New Year's, with the number of US service men and women who've died in Iraq at the 3,000 mark, the rest of the nation had occasion to pause and reflect on the war's toll.

Like many, Sergeant Jacobs greets the news of American casualties with sorrow and resolve. He retired from the Army a few months ago, and you might think the prosthetic leg would slow him down. But asked how he's doing, this 21-year veteran who faced danger in Haiti, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq says , "I'm absolutely fine, sir."

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"When you come home, you remember the ultimate sacrifices some of your fellow soldiers have made," he says of his regular walk.

Of the 3,000 American GIs lost in Iraq as of midday Sunday, more have been killed by roadside bombs – improvised explosive devices (IEDs) – than any other cause. More than by rifle fire, mortar attack, or car bomb.

It's a danger that has bedeviled Pentagon war planners for months, one to which they've responded with a high-level task force headed by a retired four-star general, $6.7 billion in research and development, new high-tech equipment and vehicles, and – perhaps most important – intelligence efforts to get inside the decisionmaking of an insurgency that is sophisticated, if largely low-tech.

If anything, the danger is increasing despite efforts to counter it.

IEDs are "the enemy's most effective weapon," Army Gen. John Abizaid, commander of all US forces in the Middle East, told the Senate Armed Services committee last March. "They are the perfect asymmetric weapon – cheap, effective, and anonymous."

Improvised bomb attacks on US troops now top 1,000 a month, four times the rate in 2004. Insurgents have become more sophisticated in their bombmaking, placement, and means of detonation. The British military has determined that there are enough stocks of illegal explosives to continue the same level of attack for years without resupply, reports DefenseNews.com.

Since the beginning of the war in March 2003, IEDs have accounted for about 45 percent of all US fatalities from hostile causes. And that percentage is increasing. Of 100 recent hostile fatalities, IEDs caused 67. December saw the highest number of Americans killed overall in Iraq in two years.

"Buried explosives are easy to plant and hard to find," says military analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute think tank. "They can be built and detonated using a range of readily available items, making them an attractive tool."

The IED problem extends beyond Iraq. IED attacks in Afghanistan doubled from 2005 to 2006. They are, as Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Richard Cody called them, "the poor man's cruise missile."

IEDs are not a new phenomenon in war. Sergeant Jacobs encountered one in Somalia in 1993. But the scale of their use in Iraq is unique.

"Perversely, the IED problem is a result of the difficulty the enemy has in attacking American troops by other means," says John Pike, head of the a military news and policy website GlobalSecurity.org.

The US military is in the midst of a big push to counter and defend against the roadside bombs, spending more than $3 billion this year on the effort. This includes new ways to jam remote-control devices used to detonate IEDs and robots to disarm or blow them up without hurting anybody. But radio frequency jamming is difficult, because it can interfere with coalition communications systems such as those used to operate aerial drones. And soldiers have to find roadside bombs before they can disable or destroy them.

From the infantryman's point of view, the most important things coming to the troops are fire-resistant uniform materials, heavier body armor, and especially tougher vehicles to replace the relatively venerable – and vulnerable – Humvees.

Many soldiers, and their parents, have written ardent fan letters about the new "Cougar" and "Buffalo" vehicles – "Humvees on steroids," they've been called.

"I have seen these things take a hit from an IED and keep driving without a problem," Air Force Staff Sgt. J. Adam Burke, an explosive ordnance disposal technician, wrote to Force Protection, Inc. the South Carolina company that produces the vehicles.

But so far only about 300 are in the combat zone, and troops on the ground could use thousands more.

Those tasked with countering roadside bombs also have been drawing on the experience of wounded veterans who've survived the blast of an IED. Twenty-two soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center have joined the "Operation Warfighter" program to work with military and civilian officials trying to reduce the threat of IEDs.

Besides the 3,000 US military fatalities in Iraq (perhaps more than that if those who died sometime after being evacuated from the war zone are included), the number of troops wounded due to hostile action now approaches 23,000 – about half of those from IEDs. In addition, some 24,000 have had to be evacuated due to accidents and illness. Sergeant Jacobs lost his right leg when it was crushed by a concrete barrier in what he calls a "freak accident" involving his truck convoy.

The percentage of those wounded who die has dropped to about 10 percent in Iraq, an all-time low in the history of warfare. By contrast, the figure was 30 percent in World War II and 24 percent in Vietnam.

Without improvements in soldiers' protective gear, battlefield treatment, and quick transportation to field hospitals, the number of US troops killed in Iraq might well have been more than twice what it is today.

That accounts for what could be seen as the relatively low figure for combat fatalities due to hostile action, distressing as it is. It also means, as the Government Accountability Office reported this year, that "many of them are returning home with severe disabilities, including traumatic brain injuries and missing limbs."

Those in harm's way in Iraq got a break the other day.

Iraqi children playing outside the gate of Forward Operating Base Marez reported a suspicious device to soldiers from the Second Battalion, Seventh Cavalry Regiment. It turned out to be an IED, which an explosive ordnance disposal team destroyed.

Civil affairs soldiers rewarded the children with toys, candy, and soccer balls. In the end, it may be that this kind of intelligence information from Iraqis themselves will be the most important weapon in countering deadly roadside bombs.

These days the Army's Third Infantry Division is preparing to deploy to Iraq for the third time. In about two weeks they'll be going to Anbar Province, one of the most dangerous parts of Iraq.

At night, lights shine on each of the Eastern Redbud trees at the division's "Warriors' Walk" at Fort Stewart, where it's hoped that no more trees will have to be planted. Like the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, personal mementos have been placed on the ground by family members, friends, and fellow soldiers.

"It's a good way to remember," says Jacobs. "But it's also a harsh reminder sometimes too."

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