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A Machine Mean Enough for Mines

The armor-plated Flailer enables U.S. troops to safely uncover and detonate deadly devices lodged in the Afghan landscape.

November 09, 2002|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan — Spc. 4 Jacob "Skip" Phillips was at the controls and Staff Sgt. Michael Lewis was in the command seat when their vehicle ran over an antitank mine.

Both National Guard soldiers were lifted off their seats by the force of the blast, which rattled windows for miles. The vehicle shuddered and rocked. Phillips and Lewis gathered themselves together and looked outside at a towering plume of black smoke.

"What a rush!" Phillips said. "Really gets your blood going."

Deliberately detonating land mines is all in a day's work for the crew of the Flailer, an ugly, armor-plated vehicle designed to uncover mines. The U.S. military leases three of the massive machines here at Bagram, a former Soviet air base planted with thousands of mines and littered with tons of unexploded ordnance.

For eight hours a day, six days a week, the crews crawl across the desert floor inside the 18-ton-plus Flailer, hoping to unearth mines. Safe inside the armored cab behind 3-inch-thick windows, they brace themselves for each new detonation.

"You can never be ready for them, it just happens -- boom!" Lewis said.

Officially known as a Hydrema 910 MCV (Mine Clearing Vehicle), the Flailer has a heavy steel plate and a huge metal cylinder studded with 72 heavy chains mounted on its rear. Weighted on the ends, the spinning chains tear into the packed desert sand and clay as the vehicle backs up, sending up enormous clouds of white dust and grit.

Since taking over operation of the Flailers from Norwegian soldiers four months ago, U.S. troops have not suffered a mine-related casualty. Before that, more than a dozen American soldiers were injured while clearing mines on foot.

Since coalition mine-clearing efforts began late last year, about 8,000 mines at this base have been cleared, with an estimated 14,000 remaining. Bagram is one of the most densely mined areas in a nation that is among the three most heavily mined in the world, along with Cambodia and Angola.

The work is dirty, hazardous and unnerving. Between them, Lewis and Phillips have detonated nearly 300 antipersonnel mines and 20 antitank mines.

"If my wife knew what I was doing, she'd kill me," Lewis said. "She thinks I'm doing engineering work."

Lewis spoke as Phillips manipulated a computerized control console to lower the steel blast shield and send the chains spinning. Digging 4 to 8 inches down, the chains sent pebbles and rocks smashing into the armored cab and windows, leaving spider-web abrasions in the thick glass as the Flailer lumbered along.

Lewis, the vehicle commander, was worried about the dust, which blanketed the windshield. Polish sappers had warned him about a 200-pound bomb they had found at the edge of the dirt track the vehicle was clearing. The bomb had been spray-painted orange, but that didn't help Lewis because he couldn't see a thing through the dust storm.

The Flailer is designed to absorb the blast of a land mine or tank mine -- anything that has up to 22 pounds of explosives -- although crews say they've survived blasts from up to 30 pounds. A 200-pound bomb would, as Lewis put it, "lay waste to this machine and kill everything inside, meaning us."

Lewis ordered Phillips several times to stop the vehicle so he could radio a fellow soldier in an observation tower to get his bearings. Over the radio, Sgt. John Fairchild kept assuring him that the bomb still lay more than 50 yards ahead on the right side of the track.

Lewis looked at Phillips and said, "We will definitely stay to the left."

Then Lewis shrugged and spoke into the radio: "Sapper One to base. Ready to start flailing."

Phillips sent the chains flying again. Within minutes, they had detonated the antitank mine. It turned out to be an American-made M-15, probably one supplied to Afghan guerrillas fighting Soviet occupation forces in the 1980s.

After the dust had cleared, Lewis steered the Flailer back to the observation tower to inspect the vehicle. Each Flailer is leased for $56,000 a month, so soldiers pay close attention to damage. The blast had blackened and pocked the cylinder and severed one of the chains, flinging it more than 200 yards.

Lewis grabbed a wrench and replaced the chain. Then he and Phillips climbed back into the cab and rumbled down the dirt track in search of more mines.

Lewis, Phillips and the other Flailer crew members are not trained as sappers. They are engineers, sent to Bagram on roughly six-month tours with their National Guard unit, the 769th Engineers Battalion from Baton Rouge, La.

At Bagram, de-mining is an international effort. The Americans are trained by Norwegian soldiers to operate the Flailer, built by a Danish company and maintained until recently by a Danish engineer.

Before each mission, the areas to be de-mined are first inspected on foot by a team of Polish army sappers working out of a van with the words "Polish Saperski" painted on the sides.

It's draining, unglamorous work carried out at the remote edges of the air base, far from fellow soldiers going about their daily routines. Lewis and Phillips say they don't mind keeping a low profile. Like all Flailer crew members, they volunteered.

Phillips, 23, a college student at Louisiana State University, said he volunteered to "do something positive, you know, make a difference." Of course, he didn't tell his mother. She thinks that he's repairing vehicles. He said he'll probably tell her when he returns home.

"Then I get to go back and tell them at school I blow up land mines," he said.

Lewis, 44, said he won't tell his wife and daughters about his mission until he gets back home to Gonzales, La. For now, he's satisfied with clearing Bagram one mine at a time.

"I feel good about it because we're doing something important," he said, leaning against the Flailer. "Every mine we blow up, that's somebody's life we're saving."

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