Walking Through an IED Minefield “On a Daily Basis”

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TONY KARUMBA / AFP / Getty Images

Dust kicks off the ground during an operation by US Army soldiers attached to the 2nd platoon, C-Coy. 1-23 Infantry based at Zangabad foward operating base in Panjwai ditrict after Anti Personnel Obstacle Breaching System -- abbreviated as A-POBS (charges fired by rocket and trigger safe detonation of IED's used to make roadside bombs) -- detonate on a nearby road during a dawn operation at Naja-bien village on Sept. 23, 2012.

Last Thursday the House Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee held a hearing on the Pentagon’s efforts to defeat improvised explosive devices, the homemade bombs that are now the leading cause of death among U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Lieut. General Michael Barbero, director of the Joint IED Defeat Organization, told the subcommittee that the number of “IED events” had jumped 42% — from 9,300 to 16,000 – between 2009 and 2011. That’s 44 IEDs detected or detonated every day. “We’re on track, for 2012, to meet or exceed the historic number of IED events we saw last year,” the JIEDDO chief added. “As a matter of fact, this past July — July 2012 — we had the highest number of monthly IED events we’ve recorded.”

But nothing that was said was particularly noteworthy. Rather, it was what was read that got attention.

It was near the end of the hearing that Rep. C.W. “Bill” Young, R-Fla., the subcommittee chairman, asked that Staff Sergeant Matthew Sitton’s June email to Young, his congressman, be read into the record.

And so it was:

Hello, my name is Staff Sergeant Matthew Sitton. I am in the 82nd Airborne Division stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. I am currently deployed with the 4th Brigade Combat Team in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

I am writing you because I am concerned for the safety of my soldiers. This is my third combat tour to Afghanistan, so I have seen the transition in rules of engagement and overall tactics over the past six years. I am only writing this email because I feel myself and my soldiers are being put into unnecessary positions where harm and danger are imminent. I know the threat of casualties in war and am totally on board with sacrifice for my country, but what I do not agree with is the chain of command making us walk through — for lack of a better term — basically a minefield on a daily basis.

I am in a platoon of 25 soldiers. We are operating at a tempo that is set for a full 35- to 40-man infantry platoon. We have been mandated to patrol twice daily for two-to-four hours each patrol on top of guarding our forward operating base and conducting routine maintenance of our equipment. There is no end state or purpose for the patrols given to us from our higher chain of command, only that we will be out for a certain period of time.

I am all for getting on the ground and fighting for my country when I know there is a desired end state and we have clear guidance of what needs to be done. But when we are told basically to just go walk around for a certain amount of time is not sitting well with me. As a brigade, we are averaging at a minimum an amputee a day from our soldiers because we are walking around aimlessly through grape rows and compounds that are littered with explosives, not to mention that the operating tempo that every soldier is on leaves little to no time for rest and refit. The morale and alertness levels on our patrols are low, and it is causing casualties left and right.

Here is an example of how bad things have gotten. Our small forward operating base was flooded accidentally by a local — that being citizen — early one morning a few days ago. He was watering his fields, and the dam he had broke, and water came flooding into our living area. Since our forward operating base does not have portable bathrooms, we had to dig a hole in the ground where soldiers could use for the bathroom. That also got flooded and contaminated the water, that later soaked into every soldier…and his gear.

Instead of returning to base and cleaning up, our chain of command was set on us meeting the brigade commander’s two-patrols-a-day guidance, that they made us move outside the flooded forward operating base and conduct our patrol soaked in urine.

That is just one single instance of the unsatisfactory situation that our chain of command has put us in. At least three of my soldiers have gotten sick since that incident and taken away from our combat power because of their illness caused by unhealthy conditions.

I understand that as a commander you are to follow the orders of those appointed over you. However, there needs to be a time where the wellness of your soldiers needs to take priority over walking around in fields four hours a day for no rhyme or reason but only to meet the brigade commander’s guidance of: you will conduct so many patrols for such an allotted time.

I am concerned about the well-being of my soldiers and have tried to voice my opinion through the proper channels of my own chain of command, only to be turned away and told that I need to stop complaining.

It is my responsibility to take care of my soldiers, and there is only so much I can do with that little bit of rank I have. My guys would fight by my side and have my back in any condition, and I owe it to them to have their best interest in mind. I know they would, and I certainly would appreciate it if there was something that you could do to help us out. I just want to return my guys home to their families healthy.

I apologize for taking your time like this, sir, and I appreciate what you do for us. I was told to contact you by my grandmother, who said you had helped my uncle many years ago. He was also serving in the military at that time.

Thank you again for allowing soldiers to voice their opinion. If anything, please pray for us.

God bless.

Less than two months later, on Aug. 2, Sitton, 26, and 1st Sgt. Russell R. Bell, 37, of Tyler, Texas, were killed by an IED blast. Sitton leaves behind a wife and a nine-month old son.

In another unexceptional round of contract announcements late Monday, the Army announced it would be spending $150 million more to defend against the IED threat — $138 million for Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles’ “Survivability Upgrade Kits” and “Vehicle Emergency Egress Windows,” and $14 million to support MRAP “fire suppression system and air conditioning.” Incredibly, the U.S. has spent at least $58 billion trying to defeat IEDs — $18 billion on JIEDDO, and $40 billion on MRAPs.

In the forever game – so long as you’re not killed or maimed – of offense-vs.-defense, the bad guys keep trumping U.S. efforts to stomp out the IED threat. JIEDDO boss Barbero elaborated at Thursday’s hearing, sounding a little like George Jetson trying to outfox Fred Flintstone:

The enemy…is adaptive and smart. They watch us. They know we have handheld detectors, so they have gone to non-metallic IEDs. The pressure plates and, in this [Sitton] case, we think the pressure plate was wooden. And what they do is they take carbon rods from D-cell batteries, which do not have a very high metallic content, but they have enough to complete the circuit when they’re touched, and two pieces of wood, a plastic jug filled with homemade explosive, ammonium nitrate, bury it with the battery underneath so we can’t pick that up, and that’s what they use.

Young is the senior Republican member of the House, having served since 1971. He is a longtime supporter of the Afghan war. But that missive from his 26-year-old constituent, and his fate, has changed the 81-year-old lawmaker’s thinking. “I think we should remove ourselves from Afghanistan as quickly as we can,” he told the Tampa Bay Times last week. “I just think we’re killing kids that don’t need to die.”