Since the first IED strikes on US soldiers in mid-2003, the insurgents had been learning from their successes and failures, targeting both Coalition troops and Iraqi security forces. We said, even back then, that there were only clever IED makers left, as the stupid ones had blown themselves up long ago.
The IEDs were getting more and more sophisticated. Radio-controlled switches, using remote-control garage-door technology or remote-control toy parts, were common. These were used to complete the circuit that would send a current from the battery pack to the detonator, which exploded, igniting the main charge – an explosive reaction that could blast air and fragments at up to 8000 metres per second and instantaneously create overpressure in the confined space of an armoured vehicle, which could break down the cellular structure of tissue in the human lungs and brain. After IED strikes, armoured crewmen were regularly found dead without a scratch on them, their brains and lungs a mash.
The succession of wars fought in Iraq had left a supply of munitions, referred to as ‘explosive remnants of war’, that could be easily adapted for use as main charges. Artillery rounds, mortar bombs, grenades and rockets were the most common. There were stories of the Americans and Iraqis alike abandoning huge stockpiles of munitions. So the insurgents had an ample supply of explosives.
And when we found ways to jam the radio-controlled switches, they would just change back to a ‘command wire’ switch. In this case, the bomb was detonated in a concealed location by a triggerman who would physically press a button, or, even more crudely, join two bare wires, thus completing a circuit. The current would run from a battery pack down the wire to the explosives.
While this had its limitations, with the triggerman having to be within 100 metres of the bomb, it was still a very effective way of targeting conveys.
There was talk of the insurgents using Russian anti-armour charges, which would explosively fire ball bearings that could penetrate the hull of a vehicle, particularly the light armour of our ASLAVs. The insurgents were constantly looking for new ways to defeat whatever we tried to do to protect ourselves.
Then there were the suicide bombers. What can you do to protect yourself against someone who has decided to die in order to take you with him? We would get daily threat reports from the intelligence blokes: ‘Look out for a yellow taxi with mixed panels, sagging on its suspension, driven by a male between twenty and forty years of age, cleanly shaven and sweating.’ Which came close to describing a third of the cars on the road. There were heaps of yellow taxis with shitty panel-beating jobs. They all sagged on their suspensions, whether they had bombs in the back or not. As for twenty-to forty-year-olds, cleanly shaven and sweating: most men in Baghdad didn’t wear beards and it was fucking hot – so they sweated – probably about as much as if they were about to blow themselves to Allah.
There was always talk of snipers, and a lot of the boys thought they had been fired on at one time or another, particularly on Route Irish. On one occasion, a patrol commander came back swearing that he had been shot at and showed us the indent in the smoke-grenade discharger on the side of his turret. Something didn’t smell quite right, and this commander had been known to fire off his pistol as he drove down Route Irish. We looked at the angle of the indent. It was all wrong for sniper fire; it was the perfect size of a 9-mm round – the same as our Browning pistols. He must have shot his own smoke-grenade discharger with his pistol. He was about to rotate back to Australia, so we let it slide. But it left a bad taste in our mouths to think that our blokes could be driving around firing off rounds with such careless neglect that they could strike their own vehicle – what else were they inadvertently hitting?
Extract from After the Blast: An Australian Officer in Iraq and Afghanistan by Garth Callender
by Garth Calllender
A very Australian story of heroism and healing.
In 2004 Garth Callender, a junior cavalry officer, was deployed to Iraq. He quickly found his feet leading convoys of armoured vehicles through the streets of Baghdad and into the desert beyond. But one morning his crew was targeted in a roadside bomb attack. Garth became Australia’s first serious casualty in the war.
After recovering from his injuries, Garth returned to Iraq in 2006 as second-in-command of the Australian Army’s security detachment in Baghdad. He found a city in the grip of a rising insurgency. His unit had to contend with missile attacks, suicide bombers and the death by misadventure of one of their own, Private Jake Kovco.
Determined to prevent the kinds of bomb attacks that left him scarred, Garth volunteered once more in 2009 – to lead a weapons intelligence team in Afghanistan. He was helicoptered to blast zones in the aftermath of attacks, and worked to identify the insurgent bomb-makers responsible.
Revealing, moving, funny and full of drama, Garth Callender’s story is one of a kind.
About the Author
Garth Callender left the regular Australian Army in 2013 after a distinguished seventeen-year career, during which he served in Iraq and Afghanistan and rose to the rank of major. He left an enduring legacy in weapons technical intelligence, and trained many hundreds of soldiers from raw recruits through to deployment. He now works for an Australian technology company that is developing new ways to detect concealed explosives.