Defanging the Taliban one arms cache at a time

1 Jun 2004 | Gunnery Sgt. Keith A. Milks

The discovery of large caches of arms and ammunition in rural Afghanistan always seem to grab headlines, but according to Marines and Sailors fighting Taliban and anti-coalition militia, a greater danger lies in smaller, much more prolific stockpiles.

For more than a month, the 22d Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) has been scouring the rugged terrain of south-central Afghanistan's Oruzgan province uncovering such caches, and when they're found, a small team of Marines and Sailors spring into action.

Marine Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) technicians assigned to the 22d MEU (SOC)'s Command Element and Sailors from Mobile Detachment 4, based in Bahrain and attached to the MEU for its operations in Afghanistan, have destroyed dozens of caches over the past weeks and nearly each day are called on to employ their highly-specialized skills.

These caches have ranged from a few land mines to large stockpiles of explosives and rocket-propelled grenades.  Destroying such deadly instruments requires a great deal more finesse than simply stacking up the arms and ammunition, throwing on some explosives, and lighting a fuse.

"We normally look for a wadi, draw or ravine," explained one Marine EOD technician who stood watching his partner carefully arrange hand grenades and rifle and machine gun ammunition for eventual disposal.  "This way we can channel, or direct, the explosion and limit frag and blast."

The items intended for destruction are always laid charge to charge to ensure continuity of the explosion and ensure no item escapes disposal undestroyed.  To assist in this, sheets of explosives resembling strips of paper are sometimes placed between the layers of arms, explosives, or ammunition, and blocks of pliable C4 plastic explosive are molded around the stacks.

Once the explosives are placed, booster cords link the blocks of C4 if more than one such block is used, and a detonation cord and igniter finish off the chain.

Arranging caches for demolition can take anywhere from a few minutes to hours and depends on the size of the cache, items to be destroyed, and method of detonation used.

"So far out here the longest prep time has been an hour and a half," said a Navy chief petty officer from Mobile Unit 4, "and that was for all those RPG (rocket-propelled grenade] rounds we found."

Once the cache is ready to be destroyed, the EOD technicians clear the surrounding terrain to ensure no hapless passerby gets injured by the detonation.  After meticulously recording the contents of the cache, they then radio a the cache's grid coordinate to higher headquarters and wait for the signal to 'go hot.'  Upon receiving the go-ahead, Marines and Sailors scan the area one more time, ignite an electronic fuse, and head a safe distance away to wait out the explosion.

After detonating the cache, the EOD technicians return to the site of the explosion to ensure the entire cache was destroyed and no munitions or weapons remain.

Surveying the crater where three Italian-made anti-tank mines and a vintage Enfield rifle were destroyed, a Sailor summed up the EOD technician's impact on the MEU's larger mission.

"All I can say for sure is that we don't have to worry about this stuff any more."

While packing away their gear after that particular destruction, the EOD crew's radio crackled with news of another find and more work to be done so off they bounced in their  armored Humvee to destroy yet more tools of Taliban and anti-coalition militia insurgents threatening Afghanistan's future.

To date, the MEU has discovered and either confiscated or destroyed 160 rifles, 10 heavy machine guns, 23 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, nearly 19,000 rounds of ammunition, and more than 1,500 pieces of ordnance, explosives, or bomb-making materials.

The 22d MEU (SOC) consists of its Command Element, Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 6th Marines, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 266 (Reinforced) and MEU Service Support Group 22, and is in Afghanistan conducting combat and civil military operations as Task Force Linebacker.

For more information on the 22d MEU (SOC)'s role in Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, visit the unit's web site at www.22meu.usmc.mil.
22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit