Navy bomb experts sift through dust, death
Mine disposal team in Afghanistan 'everyday heroes'
Monday, January 14, 2008
The Navy's underwater de-mining specialists are diving into the dust of Afghanistan, and their efforts are being heralded as heroic and lifesaving.
"The application of the type of naval de-mining training that they have is quite applicable in Afghanistan. They're everyday heroes over there, saving the lives of Canadian Forces personnel, and allies and Afghans," Defence Minister Peter MacKay says.
Lt.-Cmdr. Roland Leyte once spent three weeks combing the depths of Peggy's Cove off the Nova Scotia coast, recovering body parts and smashed pieces of the airliner that was once Swissair flight 111. He has plumbed the black, debris-infested waters of Louisiana's inter-coastal waterway in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina in search of survivors.
But Leyte's greatest challenge, after a decade and a half as a navy scuba diver specializing in bomb disposal, has come on the landlocked, battle-scarred terrain of southern Afghanistan.
It started in earnest on March 22, 2006, and culminated later that year -- literally in the line of Taliban fire on a day when four more of his Canadian comrades would lose their lives.
On his first assignment, which also involved the deaths of four Canadian soldiers, Leyte was struck by the size of the hole before him. Two metres deep and five wide, it was the product of four Russian-built anti-tank mines hooked to a radio-controlled detonator, which triggered when the Canadians' G-Wagon rolled over it.
For the next 90 minutes, Leyte and his team of forensic experts gathered four garbage bags of evidence -- bits and pieces of the bomb and the all-important radio detonator -- strewn along the dusty track that skimmed along a creek bed north of Kandahar City.
Before they boarded their American Black Hawk helicopter to return to their small laboratory at Kandahar Airfield, they had one more job: carefully removing the remains of the slain soldiers and zipping them into body bags.
"I'd rather not do it ever again in my life," Leyte recalls.
MacKay met some of the divers who have followed in Leyte's footsteps on his recent Christmas trip to Kandahar.
The navy had assumed the bulk of bomb disposal duties of the other branches of the Canadian Forces following budget cuts in the 1990s.
Then came Afghanistan. At first, the Forces relied on their allies to supply explosive ordnance disposal expertise. But the growth in the threat of improvised explosive devices and roadside bombs resulted in the navy being called in.
Of the 76 Canadian soldiers and one diplomat killed in Afghanistan, 32 fell victim to IEDs. Suicide bombers killed another 12 and the diplomat.
"In each rotation we send about 50 sailors, of whom a small, small few are naval explosive ordnance disposal divers," explains Cmdr. Jeff Agnew, a senior navy spokesman.
With U.S. and British specialists, the Canadian divers ar e part of a forensic and intelligence-gathering unit called the Combined Explosives Exploitation Cell.
"It's a fairly secretive little organization," says Agnew. "Think of the TV show CSI."
The dangerous work of Leyte and his colleagues is the first link in an intelligence-gathering chain that leads to Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, where U.S. intelligence experts enter bomb-scene data in a massive database.
Leyte has a specific checklist for the bomb itself: What type? How did it explode? What type of switch made it fire? Was it remotely controlled, or was it triggered by pressure from a tire or foot, like a traditional anti-personnel mine?
That information, along with the bomb's key electronics, is shipped to Bagram for further analysis.
The results help answer several key questions: Who built the bomb? Where did the materials come from? Who might have bankrolled it? And who was the bomber -- an assassin triggering a detonator from afar or a suicide attacker?
"A crime scene in North America, you can lock it down for 24 hours to a couple of days. Afghanistan, because it's a war zone, we only get 30 to 90 minutes to get everything we can get and basically take all your forensics and get on the helicopter again."
Unlike the television program, Leyte doesn't know what came out of the evidence he gathered. Did it help locate a network of al-Qaida or Taliban insurgents, or did the collection of a fingerprint or strand of DNA prevent a NATO coalition base from being infiltrated by a terrorist posing as a local worker?
An American colonel he used to work for once told him his work "was helping us find the network and stop the network."
Over his seven-month posting, Leyte noticed the bombs getting more powerful to match the strength of the armoured vehicles and tanks that the Forces have been shipping over to protect soldiers.
"The IEDs themselves are fairly unsophisticated. They take some time, they dig the hole ... they run their switch off to the side," says Leyte.
Leyte's final mission -- he'd done more than 70 by then -- was nearly his last in uniform. He was a little more than a week away from the end of his tour of duty when he boarded a convoy for a grim two-hour ride west to the volatile Panjwaii district.
It was Aug. 3, 2006, and another comrade had been killed when the armoured vehicle he was driving rolled across one of three lightly buried IEDs. The bomb exploded directly under the driver, breaching the hull of his vehicle.
As Leyte and his team arrived, the scene suddenly exploded in a hail of gunfire. Canadian troops, only 100 metres from the blast site, became embroiled with the Taliban only 500 metres away behind a large wall.
Leyte's team sized up the situation quickly: they found two remaining holes with unsophisticated bombs. One was still live and very much a threat.
Amid the gunfire, Leyte and a fellow bomb tech attached plastic explosives to the unexploded bomb and ran it to the front lines -- a large mud wall that separated the Canadians from the Taliban enemy.
Leyte set the time-delayed fuse and dove for cover with the soldiers. "It was not like anything I'd ever done before."
By the time the dust settled three hours later, three more Canadians troops were dead.
In part, they were protecting Leyte and his team. But their main objective was chasing a Taliban target that eventually eluded them in the nearby mud-walled maze.
"It was good days and bad days in Afghanistan. That was a bad day. You get together with friends to talk about it, and you move on to the next day," Leyte recalls. "All I know is when I left, the 12th of August, I breathed a sigh of relief as I was lifting off on my last day in Afghanistan."
© The Edmonton Journal 2008
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