'IED Whisperer' a lifesaver in Afghanistan
Staff Sgt. Kelly Rogne, who serves with a battalion from Joint Base
Lewis McChord, is known as the "IED whisperer" for his ability to find
the makeshift bombs that have extracted such a deadly toll in
By Hal Bernton
Seattle Times staff reporter
Oct 13 2012
Please go to Seattle Times to access the Pictures that run with this article
BABINEK, Afghanistan — Staff Sgt. Kelly Rogne walked down a dusty
village road, rhythmically swinging a metal detector that resembled an
oversized hockey stick.
a column of more than 20 soldiers past deep-green fields of marijuana
that surround this village in Panjwai district, traditional homeland of
defend this turf, Taliban fighters have seeded Babinek and other areas
with dense concentrations of bombs, creating one of the most perilous
patrol grounds U.S. soldiers have encountered during more than 11 years
of war in Afghanistan.
36, from Colville, Stevens County, has displayed an uncanny ability to
find these improvised explosive devices (IEDs). He uses technology,
tracking skills and intuition honed by careful study of past bomb
Some call Rogne the "IED Whisperer."
early September patrol out of Combat Outpost Mushan, Rogne located 29
IEDs through the course of a painstaking, eight-hour movement across
less than a kilometer of road, an accomplishment relayed through the
chain of command to Pentagon generals.
On his next mission, Rogne would venture back on that route.
"I think I'm ready. I'm feeling it. They're out there," he declared.
Costly war drags on
nation's longest conflict has claimed the lives of more than 2,000 U.S.
service members and continues to kill more each week. Within the past
year, taxpayers' spending on the war totaled more than $100 billion,
financing everything from helicopter gunships to Alaska snow crab and
Maine lobsters shipped to remote outposts as morale boosters.
U.S. combat troops scheduled to be withdrawn by the end of 2014, the
war in Afghanistan has, in many ways, faded from public attention and
received little prominence in the heated U.S. presidential campaign.
But the pace of war has quickened in Panjwai in the last year.
a 20-mile stretch of irrigated fields and villages, the district hosts
seven U.S. Army installations that bristle with surveillance equipment,
Stryker vehicles and mine-clearing equipment. This attention reflects
Panjwai's history as a 1990s launching point for the Taliban and its
strategic importance for insurgents as a smuggling corridor for weapons
a very small piece of Afghanistan," said Command Sgt. Maj. Eric Volk,
the senior enlisted officer for the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry
Regiment from Joint Base Lewis-McChord. "But it's a very large part of
arriving in Afghanistan in March, the Western Washington-based
battalion — Rogne's unit — has been at the forefront of
says the battalion has put serious pressure on the Taliban, citing a
significant drop in insurgent attacks in Kandahar City and other areas
of southern Afghanistan as signs of success. This has been a tough
campaign, turning villages into battle zones as U.S. troops repeatedly
cycle through them trying to clear out insurgents.
Here, as elsewhere in Afghanistan, the insurgents' makeshift bombs remain potent weapons.
contrast to the high-powered U.S. arsenal, insurgents piece together
IEDs from the scantiest of materials, packing explosives into recycled
plastic containers as small as pint water bottles and drawing current
from strings of used batteries.
2006, the U.S. military has spent $18 billion for research, equipment,
training and other efforts to combat IEDs, and soldiers are able to
safely destroy most of the bombs they encounter.
the bombs extract a deadly toll. During the past three years, nearly 60
percent of U.S. troops who died in combat were killed by IEDs,
according to Defense Manpower Data Center statistics.
In Panjwai, five men attached to the 1st Battalion's 1,200-person task force have been killed by the bombs.
often maim soldiers rather than killing them, and these traumatic
wounds have become signature injuries of foot-patrol campaigns.
more than 100 troops evacuated from the 1st Battalion task force with
serious injuries, 23 lost limbs, including seven double-amputees and
one triple amputee, according to Lt. Col. Wilson Rutherford, 1st
Battalion's commander. Dozens more soldiers suffered mild traumatic
brain injuries, fractures or other wounds from the blasts.
Insurgents try to warn villagers to stay away from active IED sites.
the first six months of this year, the bombs caused 33 percent of all
civilian casualties, killing 327 civilians and injuring 689, according
to United Nations statistics.
Caleb Duncan, of Vancouver, Wash., recalls one child, a triple amputee,
who was brought to battalion soldiers for medical care.
said it was one of the worst things he has seen in this war. "You don't
have to speak to put out the message: 'Look, the Americans didn't do
this, the Taliban did.' "
An ingenious enemy
who plant the IEDs are often elusive, quick to duck under trees that
hide them from overhead surveillance cameras. Under cover, they can
drop their weapons or bomb-making materials, put on new clothing and
transform themselves from fighters to villagers. They are also canny
scavengers, even turning a staple of Army field life — the foil
wrappers that encase Meals Ready-to-Eat — into the outer casing
for a pressure plate.
soldiers are wary of contributing to the bomb-making materials. They
are under orders to cut up any big, empty plastic jugs, such as those
that contain protein powder, before leaving them in the base trash. No
one wants those jugs smuggled off base and packed with explosives.
the little things that tend to bite you," said 2nd Lt. Kenneth Shogry,
from New Milford, Conn. "What we look at as trash might be a resource
for the insurgents."
of the IEDs are triggered by radio signals. Some are touched off by
command wires operated by insurgents hiding nearby. Most are "victim
activated," with a trigger mechanism set off by body weight.
Soldiers have learned survival can be a matter of inches.
on patrol, they carefully place their boots in the footprints created
by those who walk just in front of them. Veer slightly to the left or
right and you could lose your legs — or your life — to a
Soldiers have also had to adjust their battle tactics.
infantry soldier under fire will typically take cover or close in
quickly on the enemy and try to take them out. But soldiers here have
found insurgent bullets may be part of a plan to bait them into an IED.
If they take cover, the soldiers might set off a bomb planted by a wall
or tree. If they try to pursue an insurgent, they might be crossing a
belt of bombs primed to explode.
So, when under attack, soldiers often take a knee and hope the insurgents aren't good shots.
are shooting at us to try to force us to go in a certain direction,
which is more dangerous than if you just stay put," said Volk, the
command sergeant major. "The men have to display a lot of discipline."
Surviving these patrols sometimes feels like winning the lottery
Peter Butler, from Portland, was shook up by two blasts that injured
other soldiers. Late in the summer, he stepped directly on a trigger
device, and he could feel a whoosh of air as his foot went down.
That bomb malfunctioned.
blasting cap went off, but the DET (detonator cord) didn't go," Butler
said. "That's the only reason I got two little legs left."
On patrol, soldiers wear a mandatory piece of gear widely distributed only since last year — Kevlar diapers.
the aid of Velcro and belt loops, the troops wrap the diapers around
their crotches to shield the upper body core and the groin. In some bad
blasts, they have been effective. That's earned the diapers the respect
of soldiers, some of whom have told their buddies they would rather be
left to die on the battlefield than be robbed of their sex life, as
well as their legs, by a bomb.
have heard that many, many times," said Cpl. Keith Robinson, of
Lewiston, Idaho. "Some might be joking. Some might be serious. It's
kind of an awkward statement to begin with."
arriving in Afghanistan in the spring, Rogne estimates he has found
more than 150 IEDs while walking the lead position on patrols. But he's
not keeping score.
of people thought I was after numbers, how many IEDs I could find,"
Rogne says. "It's not about that. When you have a group you work with
hit by IEDs, and you see how it affects people's lives, you don't ever
want anyone to step on one again. So the reason I go out front is
that's where I can best be utilized."
the son of a Colville logger, joined the Army when he was 18. He is on
his fourth combat tour. In the run-up to a mission, he spends hours
studying battlefield maps, photos and intelligence to better anticipate
where bombs might be placed.
started this year's tour of duty with the 1st Battalion's Blackhawk
Company, and helped his platoon survive a difficult start to the summer
without any wounds from IEDs. Then in July, he got an unexpected call
to Combat Outpost Mushan in the western part of Panjwai to serve as the
lead enlisted officer for Apache Company's 2nd Platoon.
was assigned to replace Sgt. 1st Class Edgar Barrera, who had been
severely wounded on a nightmarish July 7 patrol. Around 7 a.m. that
morning, stepping outside of a compound that had been searched for
signs of insurgents, Barrera detonated a bomb. The explosion claimed
both his legs and an arm, and caused shrapnel and other wounds to a
half-dozen soldiers near the site of the blast.
There were gunbattles, and another bomb explosion severed both feet of one soldier.
Late in the
day, Sgt. Juan Navarro, a team leader who had been caught in the first
blast but demanded to stay with his soldiers, sat down to take a break.
Navarro chose a piece of turf that had been walked over by many other
soldiers and swept for bombs with three different devices, according to
His weight set off another bomb blast, and he died from his wounds.
after a patrol, Apache Company soldiers would hit the free-weights set
up under a tent near their living quarters. The often-intense physical
workouts offer troops a kind of therapy, helping them cope with
tensions that build up during a deployment.
the July 7 patrol, the gym tent was largely empty, recalls 1st Sgt.
Michael Robinson. Instead, soldiers had a quiet day of grieving.
could see them giving each other hugs when someone would break down for
a few minutes. You could see them draw together."
Soon, patrols resumed back through the bomb-laden trails.
a mindset," Robinson said. "If you let the fear take hold, it will rule
you, and a bad thing will happen. If you understand that the IED is
just an obstacle — something that is just there: You can identify
it. Go around it. Or take it out. But you have a choice."
Rogne helped the platoon build confidence.
simulated IED field erected next to the base's sand-filled barriers,
Rogne explained the capabilities, limitations and quirks of three
different mine-detection systems. Soldiers then went to work trying to
find disarmed bombs that had been retrieved from the road.
Through August, the schedule of the missions picked back up, with the
soldiers threading their way through one band of bombs after another
without taking any new casualties. Meanwhile, they struck back at the
insurgents, killing some who sought to spring ambushes.
"Rogne helped," said Staff Sgt. Bill Kearney. "But also time, and a few good firefights to get back at the enemy."
mid-September, the Army wanted to build a new route through an area
just outside Babinek. So the company commander tapped 2nd Platoon to
carry out a "disruptive mission" that would hopefully create a
diversion big enough to shift the insurgents' focus away from engineers
who were making new road cuts.
first half-hour of the platoon's patrol was quiet. Then Rogne found his
first bomb. He spotted it cached inside a shallow depression in front
of an abandoned compound. This was the same area where Barrera had
stepped on the IED in July.
On this day, that spot held no surprises.
Army demolition expert on the patrol checked out the site and uncovered
the wire, trigger and a blue plastic bottle packed with explosives. He
executed a "BIP" — blow-in-place — that sent a cloud of
dust kicking up out of the roadway.
By the end of the morning, Rogne had found three more IEDs.
Several insurgents sought to counterattack, but were chased off by Army helicopter gunships.
The platoon settled in for a noon lunch break.
On that day, safe and secure.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or email@example.com