IEDs continue to kill and maim U.S. troops despite multibillion dollar effort

Published Sep. 28, 2012

The blast's shock wave would have hit Telemachus Dimitrakopoulos at close to 1,600 feet per second, a hammer of wind and spiked air pressure that left the U.S. Marine wondering why time had suddenly stopped.

Dimitrakopoulos knew his war movies. So he used Saving Private Ryan to describe the blast of an improvised-explosive device, or IED.

"Remember the scene where Tom Hanks is on the beach in Normandy and he can't hear anything and time has slowed down?" said Dimitrakopoulos, referring to a scene when Hanks' character is momentarily disabled by an explosion. "You've got to give the brain a few seconds to reboot. That's the best I can describe it."

After a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan costing more than $1 trillion, U.S. troops continue to die and be maimed by a weapon that can be cobbled together with spare parts costing less than $30. U.S. military officials say great progress has been made defeating IEDs. The Pentagon has waged the battle against them in the classic American style: by spending billions and using advanced technology.

About 6,572 U.S. troops have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, and 2,483 of those deaths are IED related, according to the Washington Post. IEDs are the top killer of U.S. troops. Thousands more have been wounded by them.

IEDs are a weapon that have torn limbs and lives in equal measure, left a superpower humbled and ensured the nation and its veterans will pay a high price for decades in continuing medical and psychological care.

"In some ways, it's been the perfect storm," said Jim Carafano, a military analyst. "I think we got a little complacent after operations like Panama and Desert Storm. We apply force, the enemy caves and we're done. But the thing to remember in warfare is that the enemy gets a vote."

Like few weapons before, IEDs have become strategic in nature, shaping U.S. war policy and affecting public support for the conflicts, some say.

Last week, Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, said he now supports the immediate withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Young said the decision came after he got an email from Staff Sgt. Matthew Sitton, who wrote of the senseless carnage of IEDs. Sitton was later killed by one.

Dimitrakopoulos was left relatively unhurt by that IED blast in 2006 in a narrow lane of Fallujah. It exploded on the opposite side of the road. He and his buddies laughed it off like the cocksure Marines they were.

"It was just another day in the office," he said.

• • •

IEDs are not new to warfare. They got their name from the British when they were widely deployed by the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland during the 1970s. They date back centuries in one form or another.

IEDs are often the weapon of choice for an insurgency, used when insurgents are unable to confront the firepower of an opponent. They were used by partisans against Germans in World War II and by the Viet Cong against Americans in Vietnam.

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"In its most fundamental form, the IED is a lethal ambush," Gen. Thomas Metz told Congress in 2008. "And men have been ambushing their enemies for thousands of years."

Military analysts say the United States was caught unprepared for IEDs as the wars opened. Humvees and troops were inadequately armored. This was an alien type of warfare to troops. This was a battle without a front. A homemade bomb made with parts from an egg timer or cell phone could be hidden in trash or inside the dead bodies of humans or animals.

Bombs could be made with discarded artillery shells or farming fertilizer.

And while the weapons could be made out of cheap parts, they could also be quite sophisticated. Insurgents built "daisy chain" IEDs with multiple warheads interconnected. Other IEDs detonated with contact, often a pressure plate on the ground. Others might be radio controlled.

And insurgents endlessly adapted IEDS as troops learned to defeat them, the military says.

In 2006, the Defense Department formed the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, or JIEDDO, to spearhead efforts at defeating IEDs. The Pentagon has spent at least $58 billion trying to thwart IEDs.

"The IED is the weapon of choice for threat networks because they are cheap, readily available, largely off the shelf, easy to construct, lethal and accurate," Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, JIEDDO director, told the U.S. House Appropriations Committee last week.

He noted that IEDs were on the upswing in Afghanistan. In the last two years, Barbero said, IEDs have increased 42 percent to 16,000 in 2011. The numbers in 2012 could exceed that figure, he said. U.S. casualties were down 40 percent, Barbero said.

Troops used robots and pilotless drones to find or defuse IEDs, along with electronic devices used to jam radio signals that trigger IEDs. Also used are explosive-sniffing dogs. One company recently boasted that rats could be trained to do the work of those dogs.

The military is increasingly emphasizing a strategy to disrupt a terrorist network before it can plant an IED, rather than simply dealing with them when they are found.

Some criticize the money approach to counter-IED efforts.

"Congress is real good shoveling money to defense contractors," said G.I. Wilson, a retired Marine colonel and military commentator. "There is a fixation with the technological fix for everything."

Sometimes, he said, it's best to stick to the basics.

• • •

Dr. Steven Scott, a physician at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa, recognized early in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that he was seeing different kinds of wounds.

They were more complex and challenging. Some were invisible, traumatic brain injuries every bit as debilitating as a lost limb. Often, severe blast injuries created havoc with many parts of the body at once. Advances in medicine resulted in Haley doctors seeing more profoundly wounded soldiers than ever before.

"In the past, they would not be able to survive," Scott said. "It's amazing how well they will do."

Scott began to do research. He looked at old films of World War I veterans and noticed something about their eyes. He said it led him to the important role of vision in recovery from head wounds. It was a deduction, one of many, that help lead the VA to open five polytrauma units, including one at Haley, for specialized treatment.

Scott said he is endlessly amazed by how well many polytrauma patients rebound.

He mentioned two men who would have died in an earlier war. But within minutes of a battlefield blast, a physician performed open cardiac massage, bringing them back to life.

Not long ago, Scott sat between the men at a Rays game.

• • •

Dimitrakopoulos, the Marine who survived the IED in Fallujah, as a condition of his interview, asked that any article written about his experience name the three friends he lost to a separate IED blast in 2006. People need to know, he said, that IEDs kill real people.

His friends were: Sgt. Julian Arechaga, Lance Cpl. Jon Bowman and Pfc. Shelby Feniello.