And they were hardly alone among fallen soldiers in Iraq. Of the 54 Michigan soldiers who have died in the war over the past two years, 20 have been victims of roadside bombs, suicide bombs and improvised explosive devices (IED) against which there is little defense.
For Army Spc. Adrian J. Butler, 28, death came on July 27 when an IED detonated near his HumVee while on patrol in the town of Ashraf.
Spc. Eric T. Burri, 21, died on June 7 when a homemade bomb exploded near his vehicle in Baghdad.
Capt. Stephen W. Frank, 29, was in Diyarah on April 29 when he was killed by a bomb detonated in a car passing through his traffic checkpoint.
These and the details of other fatalities among Michigan soldiers are chronicled Michigans Fallen Soldiers on www.detroit.about.com. Its a running total of fatalities which reveals that approximately 40% of Michigan casualties in Iraq have been victims of some form of a roadside bomb or suicide bomber.
THE BOMB HUNTERS
These kinds of bombs are historically whats been done -- bombs are the weapons of choice for terrorists and despotic regimes, says Dave Page, who served as a sergeant with the 745th Ordnance Company of Camp Grayling during the Gulf War. Today, hes in charge of safety, security and abatement procedures at the Building 50 redevelopment project in Traverse City.
The 745th is a bomb disposal unit. During Sgt. Pages service in the early 90s, the unit was active in disposing of unexploded munitions and bombs littering the deserts of Kuwait. Today, the 745th is faced with a new war and new weapons: tracking down and neutralizing IEDs along with other munitions in Iraq.
Roadside bombs can be concealed in pavement and curbs and camoflaged with plaster of paris; stored in vehicles with the doors welded shut; or even hung in trees and then detonated by an observor watching from a distance for U.S. troops to pass by.
They can conceal them pretty effectively, but there are also very sophisticated methods being developed to detect them, Page says.
A lot of the countermeasures theyre using to defeat these things are classified, he adds, noting that secrecy is needed to keep Iraqi insurgents in the dark on how bombs are being detected. Its kind of like spy-versus-spy, but on a deadly scale. Theres a lot of technical support going into learning how to defeat these bombs. The more devices we can recover, the more we can learn about them.
Page notes that the military and its contractors are working on diagnostic tools and technology to head-off bombings. The analogy is similar to diagnostic medical technology, he notes. Theyre trying to look inside a package without exploding it.
But that technology isnt foolproof even for the experts of the 745th which has suffered two blow-downs (explosions) in Iraq, along with casualties.
In bomb disposal work, you may do a couple in a career and remember it forever, Page recalls of his own days in the field. These guys did dozens in a couple of months. They dont get time to deal with the stress or how its affecting them -- they just have to keep working on the mission.
CASUALTIES ON THE RISE
Theres an urgency to bomb detection and disposal because casualties are on the rise in Iraq.
According to Department of Defense records, some 1,884 servicepersons have died in Iraq since the war began in March, 2003. Of that number, 494 U.S. soldiers have been killed by roadside bombs, according to www.icasualties.org, a statistics website that catalogs the dead and wounded.
The number has spiked dramatically upward since January of this year The website notes that just four soldiers died from IEDs in July 2003, but that number has risen to 39 in July of 2005. Since the beginning of this year alone, a total of 229 soldiers have been killed in IED attacks, including eight from Michigan.
U.S. soldiers are hardly alone in facing death by roadside bombs. Among private contractors assisting in the war effort, there have been at least 255 fatalities thus far, according to www.icasualties.org, including 57 deaths from car bombs, suicide bombers or IEDs.
And needless to say for those who watch the nightly news on television, Iraqi citizens have faced an even greater toll in the many marketplace bombings and car bomb attacks which seem to be a daily occurrence.
Bombing attacks are reportedly increasing in frequency and power. On April 29, for instance, 17 bombs, including four suicide blasts, went off almost simultaneously in the town of Azamiyah, with 13 car bombs exploding in Iraq, according to Britains Independent newspaper. The blasts left 50 people dead, including two U.S. soldiers, along with 114 Iraqis and seven Americans wounded.
On Aug. 17, the day this story was written, 40 Iraqis died from bomb attacks by insurgents.
Figures on soldiers wounded by roadside bombs are harder to come by. Department of Defense records show that 6,759 troops have incurred wounds serious enough to remove them from duty. But details on soldiers wounded by IEDs are sketchy.
What has been widely reported, however, is that these bombs often leave devastating wounds.
Pfc. Derrick Harden of Johannesburg is one local soldier who spent the spring at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. recovering from a bomb attack.
The 2003 Gaylord High School student was serving with an Army Ranger unit in Al-Ramadi, Iraq on Jan. 17 when a car bomb exploded only 15 feet from his post.
In addition to being shot in the left arm, Harden suffered massive injuries from the blast which buried him under concrete debris and a steel door. The blast broke bones in his face, both arms and legs. Shrapnel wounds to his face required multiple surgeries. He lost his right leg below the knee to amputation, and narrowly lost the other at an Army hospital in Germany. Fortunately, Harden woke up in time to prove to doctors there that he could move his left leg at both the knee and hip, according to a published account.
GOOD NEWS/BAD NEWS
Advances in trauma medicine and surgery along with physical and occupational therapy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center are bringing soldiers such as Pfc. Harden back from the brink of death.
Many soldiers who would have previously died of their injuries are now living with severe disabilities, notes Operation Truth, an anti-war veterans group. Although media attention is regularly given to the rising death toll in Iraq, far less scrutiny has been given to the number of troops wounded, and often permanently disabled, in the war effort. Because of better equipment and medical treatment, the survival rate for injured soldiers is higher than in previous wars.
Currently, U.S. troops are reportedly trying to keep a step ahead of insurgent bombers through the use of better armor. The New York Times reported this month that the Pentagon is on its second round of scrambling to obtain better armor for military vehicles as well as body armor for troops in the wake of this summers increase in bombing attacks.
As has also been widely reported, troops are trying to beef up their lightly armored HumVees through the addition of hillbilly armor composed of sand bags and scrap metal.
One infantryman who identified himself as simply Futomara, described his experience with hillbilly armor on the Operation Truth website:
...In Baghdad our vehicles (were) low armor, light skin HUMMVVs... We lined our vehicles with sandbags and proceeded with our missions. Toward the end of our rotation in Iraq we were performing a routine TCP mission when a small truck swerved in front of one of our squad leaders vehicles and dropped an IED. It exploded immediately, tore through the sandbags, shattering both of the squad leaders legs and sending shards of metal into the head of his driver. That is just one example of many where an up-armored HUMMVV would have saved these soldiers from injury...