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In Afghanistan, U.S platoon's tranquil morning shattered by blast

Bombs explode every day in the country, and are preponderant in the Arghandab Valley, where the platoon is based. But for one sergeant, this one was personal and quite memorable.

June 06, 2010|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • An improvised explosive device detonates as U.S. soldiers look on in Afghanistan's Arghandab Valley.
An improvised explosive device detonates as U.S. soldiers look on in Afghanistan's… (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Jilga, Afghanistan — Sgt. Tait Terzo was manning the patrol point just after dawn Saturday with his bomb-sniffing dog, Urmel, an eager Belgian Malinois whose job was to warn the U.S. soldiers behind him if he caught a whiff of explosives.

Sgt. Steve Peterson, a few paces behind, decided to inspect a pile of cow manure beside a dirt wall. Insurgents have hidden bombs in stranger places.

And then Peterson, 23, was knocked on his belly in the dirt, his arms curled around his M-4 carbine, his mouth full of grit, his ears ringing. Dirt and manure and chunks of wall rained down on him.

He no longer knew where he was or what he was doing. It seemed to him that something terrible was happening to someone else.

"IED!" a soldier screamed. An improvised explosive device. A bomb had exploded.

A bomb goes off somewhere in Afghanistan every day — several times a day, in fact. But this bomb, on a tranquil Saturday morning, amid golden fields of wheat and flowering pomegranate groves, was personal and quite memorable, at least to Peterson, his buddies in 2nd Platoon and the journalists accompanying them.

It was the 46th roadside bomb, give or take, since the Army platoon took up residence in this Arghandab Valley village west of Kandahar six months ago. And it was the first of four bombs to hit the platoon's battalion before lunch Saturday. Two more were pointed out by a villager and detonated by a U.S. explosives team in the afternoon.

When the day's first bomb exploded, Peterson was blinded by black smoke. By instinct, he tried to listen to the radio receiver at his left ear, but his ears wouldn't work. He was momentarily deaf.

Spc. Phillip Singleton, a high school track star known as "Doc," the platoon medic, bolted from the rear of the patrol. He was at the blast crater in seconds, trying to find Peterson through the smoke. He had already unfurled two tourniquets.

"Where are you?" Singleton hollered.

"Right in front of you!"

Singleton tried to get a look at Peterson's legs. He was afraid they had been blown off. He groped for the fallen man's feet.

"OK, good," Singleton thought. "He's still got two feet."

Now Peterson was cursing and shouting out orders. He still hadn't realized he'd been hit by a bomb blast.

"What the … just happened?" he asked.

He didn't understand why his buddy, Spc. Justin Orrick, was patting him down. Orrick had been knocked off his feet by the explosion, then scrambled up to help the medic check Peterson for wounds.

"You just got hit by an IED, dude," said Sgt. David Lee, who had stumbled through the smoke to help.

And now came Urmel the dog, panting, pacing. He is trained to sit when he sniffs explosives. He sat next to the smoking crater. Then he trotted over to the ruined wall where the bomb had been hidden. He sat again.

"Urmel confirmed it: Yep, an IED just went off here," his handler, Terzo, joked later.

In fact, the whole platoon laughed about it afterward, reenacting every moment over eggs, sausage and grits at their fortified combat outpost a couple of miles away.

But when the bomb went off, they were a dozen deadly serious young men. They were certain that two of their buddies had just been killed or maimed. Several screamed out curses at unseen insurgents.

Then their training kicked in. They set up a perimeter, pulled rear security and searched a wheat field for a bomb wire and whoever triggered the device. They found nothing.

Someone radioed a preliminary "nine-line," a call for a medical evacuation helicopter. But when Doc Singleton quickly pronounced Peterson and Orrick whole, they called it off.

Instead, two Kiowa helicopters soared overhead to escort the patrol back to base.

Peterson squatted next to a mud wall and tried to clear his head. He announced to the medic that he was "disorientated."

Singleton checked Peterson's pupils and ears. A trickle of blood dotted one ear canal, but both ear drums were intact.

Peterson gulped a Gatorade. He tried to focus.

"Dude, just goes to show you we're the best at what we do — finding … bombs," he told the medic.

The bomb was at least a 100-pounder, by the estimation of the platoon sergeant, Sgt. 1st Class Jeremiah Mason. It was packed with homemade explosives and at least one rocket.

The platoon leader, 1st Lt. Jordan Ritenour, who replaced a lieutenant whose leg was blown off by a roadside bomb in January, tucked a jagged piece of rocket into his pocket for later analysis.

Ritenour had spent the morning patrol talking to villagers, probing for information on insurgents. A farmer had given him a promising lead on a possible Taliban hide-out nearby.

The lieutenant asked the man for his cellphone, then punched in his own cell number. He wrote down the farmer's number and slipped him a few Afghanis, the local currency.

The man said he might phone in more information as long as no one found out. Ritenour promised that no one else would know.

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