U.S. soldiers detonate a roadside bomb discovered by Iraqi army troops west of Baghdad in April.
U.S. soldiers detonate a roadside bomb discovered by Iraqi army troops west of Baghdad in April.

The Bomb Squad

A Marine, seen through the bulletproof window of a Humvee, checks for a possible improvised explosive device, or IED, in Fallujah last October.
A Marine, seen through the bulletproof window of a Humvee, checks for a possible improvised explosive device, or IED, in Fallujah last October. (Patrick Baz - AFP/Getty Images)
By Whitney Terrell
Sunday, October 29, 2006

1ST LT. NATE RAWLINGS IS STANDING IN THE CAMP LIBERTY MOTOR POOL, just west of Baghdad, trying to figure out why a NASCAR track dryer should be welded to one of his minesweeping trucks. In such situations, Rawlings -- who is 6-2, 230 pounds -- resembles an offensive lineman who has been asked to dance ballet. His brow furrows, his comic-book square chin dips with respectful curiosity. But he'd like to make sure that this step is really necessary. "What happens if [it's] hit with shrapnel?" he asks the Asymmetric Warfare Group man.

The Asymmetric Warfare Man -- who has what I can only hope is an irrational fear that if I use his name, insurgents will go to America and hunt down his family -- bites his lip. A retired officer, he has his web belt cinched so tight that it acts as a corset, flaring out his rib cage. He's here to help the Army combat unconventional weapons by inventing contraptions such as the dryer, which is supposed to blow dirt off of buried bombs. Also, his wife kicked him out. ("Go!" is what he remembers her saying. "You've been wanting to since Day One of the war. You'll hate yourself if you don't.")

"This gas can, okay, it sits right here?" The Asymmetric Warfare Man squats beside the dryer, which resembles a lawn mower engine bolted to a jet turbine bolted to an elbow of air-conditioning duct. He taps its exposed gas can, and continues. Maybe if Rawlings mounted some fire retardant next to the gas can, it would powder in a blast? Render the fuel inert? And then act as a fire retardant for the whole thing? "That's not too bad," the Asymmetric Warfare Man declares, gaining momentum. "Whaddya think?"

"I don't like it," Rawlings says.

Neither do I, given that I'm going to be riding in one of these minesweeping trucks tomorrow. The shrapnel Rawlings mentions is an all-too-likely possibility, considering the 25,000 improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, that have been aimed at American troops since the war in Iraq began, severing limbs and crushing the skulls of U.S. soldiers and journalists alike. It doesn't help that Rawlings's soldiers -- with whom I am embedded -- are the leading edge of a $6.1 billion Pentagon effort to win the war against roadside bombings in Iraq.

They're IED hunters. It's their job to find the bombs that the insurgents plant. It's Rawlings's job to make sure they don't get blown up trying.

"When I first started," Rawlings shouts as the dryer revs up for a demonstration, "I used to sit by the radio 14 hours a day. I'd stay till 4 in the morning, whatever it took, listening to my guys out on patrol until I was sure they'd made it home okay."

Rawlings isn't supposed to worry this much. Part of the Pentagon's spending has paid for specially armored trucks -- such as the RG-31 we've been inspecting -- designed to protect his soldiers from IED blasts. On the other hand, as we drive back to his headquarters, we pass another unit's RG-31: Its engine compartment and four-foot-tall front tires are gone; the ballistic windows in its cab and armored bed are spiderwebbed from an IED attack that wounded two.

"Yeah, well," Rawlings says. "That vehicle looked a lot better when we first towed it in. People have been stripping parts from it."

It's hard to tell whether he's reassuring himself or me.

It's even harder to try to bridge the gulf between Rawlings's language -- this war's now-familiar lexicon of "flaks" and "mortar pits" and scouts who disappear in a "fine red mist" -- and what I know of his life as a history major at Princeton University, where he graduated in 2004. A "big, beefy rugger player from Chattanooga" -- in the words of his writing professor, John McPhee -- Rawlings was the kind of romantic enthusiast that I remember emulating when I attended Princeton in the early '90s. In addition to rugby, he wrestled and acted as the social chair of Tiger Inn, a notoriously rowdy club, while at the same time studying with historian Sean Wilentz and researching a thesis on a Confederate ancestor in Tennessee. Rawlings also considered military service a family responsibility, and, following in the footsteps of his uncle and grandfather, who fought in Vietnam and WWII, respectively, he joined ROTC three weeks before 9/11. That decision has led him to a desk in this plywood-floored tactical operations center, or TOC, surrounded by soldiers from E Company, 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry's Ironclaw team. His deployment didn't kill his romantic streak -- in an e-mail last winter, he described his first firefight by writing, "Teddy Roosevelt would have found that engagement rather sporty" -- but after six months in Iraq, that part of him seems to be struggling against the messiness of the fight against IEDs.

Until recently, he tells me, most IED patrols were done on foot -- a process that often involved uncovering bombs by hand. When I express disbelief, Rawlings cites the experiences of Sgt. Willard Peterson, who is sitting in a dusty leather chair five feet away from us.

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