ROTM: Explosives expert in Afghanistan
This is a special edition of Reader of the Month, featuring Tom Jones*, an explosives and munitions expert currently in Afghanistan helping to locate and disarm IEDs scattered throughout the country. I was very surprised to receive an email from Tom, explaining that he enjoyed Zen Pencils and looked forward to it every week. There I was, in my safe little home-office scribbling cartoons, and someone in Afghanistan working in a warzone and saving lives takes time out to email ME?! We began corresponding and Tom’s story became so compelling that I had to share it with you.
You’re on your third deployment in Afghanistan. What do you do there, and what kind of training did you go through?
I am a forensic chemist, performing counter-insurgency exploitation of energetic materials. Basically, I try to understand, characterize and ultimately defeat the IEDs being used against Coalition troops and our Afghan allies.
My professional background started in the United States Air Force where I worked as a Munitions Journeyman. I was responsible for maintaining the weapon systems, and when necessary, assembling the assets and getting them onto the aircraft. While in the military, I began working towards a degree in Chemistry. After graduating I separated from the military and started working in my current position. I’ve had various training from the United States FBI, and some from our EOD (explosive ordnance dispoal) counterparts in theatre. A lot of it also comes on the job, after years of doing this I still get surprised.
What exactly is an IED and how do you detect and dispose of them?
An IED is an Improvised Explosive Device. These devices come in an incredible array of sizes, shapes, explosive components and activation mechanisms (which is what makes them so dangerous). I have seen devices the size of an ink pen and I’ve seen vehicles full of hundreds of pounds of explosive material. These devices are always changing, often improving. They’re becoming harder to detect and more lethal. As I alluded to, every time I’ve come out here, I encounter something I haven’t seen before.
There are two main ways of defeating these systems. The first way is finding the assembled device out in the theatre of operations. Because a lot of these devices are very simple, they’re very hard to detect by conventional countermeasures. The only metal on some of these devices might be a thread of copper wire, making them very difficult to detect with conventional sweepers. This means one has to rely on keen situational awarness. We have a particular set of things we look for though, what you might call the “usual suspects”. Anything found out in the theatre of operations is typically destroyed on site with a controlled detonation.
The second way of eliminating these devices is finding the materials before they can be assembled into a weapon or better yet (mostly where I come in) tracking down the source of the materials and removing that source from the theatre of operations. To eliminate the source we have to understand what the enemy is using to make their weapons.
IEDs typically come in two forms: The HE and HME. An HE is a “High Explosive” and it’s typically a commerically manufactured munitions asset. Rockets, Mortars, Grenades, C-4 (plastic explosive). These are more rare because of how difficult it is to procure military grade munitions. The second form, an “HME” is a “Home-Made Explosive”. These are the ones we are most concerned with because they are used by re-purposing every day household items and are easily available to anyone with the knowledge to create these weapons systems. That’s where the chemistry comes in. I am able to use basic chemistry techniques (observing a color change in the presence of a particular solution) all the way up to half-million dollar instruments that break things down to the atomic level. I can detect not only what it is, but also what the distribution of materials are. That is to say, what’s the “recipe”. That is very valuable intel when you’re dealing with a multi component system, because not every cook follows the same protocol. Every bomb maker has their own formula (80% X, 20 % Y) or they use a specific product. So I follow these trends and attempt to trace it all back to the source.
Do you have a particular Zen Pencils comic that really inspires you? Or something that keeps your morale up when times get difficult?
Well, I was originally drawn to Zen Pencils by the Carl Sagan “Make the Most of This Life” comic. I saw it posted on a blog and was nearly moved to tears. Being an atheist and a scientist currently serving in a conflict it almost seemed like the combination of the quote and the subject matter of this comic was written for me. I just thought “Wow, someone else gets it”. We have this one life to live and it’s tragic to see some people throw it all away for the promise of an after-life. I believe in life before death and when you strip away all of the things we think make us so different, you begin to realize we are all just people.
It may be a little cliché, but I also love Neil Gaiman’s “Make Good Art”. It can mean something different to everyone who reads it. That might explain why it’s one of your more popular comics. But that’s ok, sometimes people think there’s a stigma with liking something that’s popular and that you have to be different or always go against the norm. People like to invoke Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” when making a case for being different. Whenever someone describes this poem they always applaud the road not taken. I think that’s the rebel in all of us. It’s the allure of the contrarian. I like the way you present the comic as two paths down the road of life, neither road a bad choice, just different. There’s nothing inherently wrong with choosing the road more traveled. There’s a reason that road has been taken by so many others, and many have found happiness there. Besides, whether you take a path because it’s popular, or you choose the alternative because it’s not, you are still allowing others to dictate your decisions and can never really be yourself.
You mentioned the Carl Sagan comic in particular struck a chord with you. The comic’s view is basically that all war is futile and a waste of human life. So let me ask you, why did you choose to fight and has it been worth it?
You could say that the military is the “family business”. My Father was a Air Force pilot, while his Father served before him. My Mother’s Father was also an Army Officer so I’ve grown up in a very patriotic family.
It’s interesting you use the phrase “choose to fight” instead of “choose to serve”, because fighting is exactly what I was doing. The motto of our munitions outfit was “Our production – their destruction” and you could get a T-shirt that said “Providing the enemy the opportunity to die for their country”. Some people like to use the word “serve” in place of “fight”, or “peace keeping” instead of “war” but that doesn’t change the fact I was trained and paid to put bombs on target and no matter how advanced that weapons system is, it’s never 100% accurate.
I never deployed while in uniform but I would watch video with the other guys in my unit and cheer as the JDAM takes out the enemy encampment, or give my nod of approval as a few hellfire missiles come raining down on a group of suspected insurgents. We were all eagerly waiting for our chance to get in there and introduce the enemy to our own weapons. I never really understood what explosives did to people until I came out here and began to see their destructive capability. Explosives don’t care what side you’re fighting for or what you believe, they will kill you just the same.
Looking back on it, I am a bit ashamed of just how eager I was to have the opportunity to take the lives of other people. Don’t get me wrong though, I am no pacifist and I feel that there is certainly justification for defending ones self and ones country, but it should be treated with a certain level of dignity. War is a serious undertaking and not something to be mocked on t-shirts, if you know what I mean.
Has it all been worth it? Some say yes, others no, and even more may say we wont know for another 10 years after we’re out of here. It’s been so long since all of this started, I think some people forgot why we got into this mess in the first place. A group of people orchestrated and executed a plan to deliberately take the lives of thousands of innocent people and I felt a responsibility to try and do something about it. To paraphrase a quote I heard years ago, “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil, is for good men to do nothing”. Well, that’s at least how I felt in the beginning.
With the Coalition troops beginning their withdrawal, has your view of the war changed since your first deployment?
Things have changed a lot since I’ve been here. I’ve become jaded and a bit callous, and I sometimes wonder what we are still doing here. I can’t really explain it, I just feel tired. We started with a clear mission; get the bad guys who attacked us and dismantle the organization being harbored by the local Afghan militants. We’ve lost track of that and are now trying to shape an entire culture. These people have had their way of life for thousands of years and have defended their homeland from countless “invaders” who have tried to do exactly what we are doing. We might have different reasons, but in the eyes of the Afghan we are just the next iteration of “Crusader” who want to change them. They see us as a threat to Islam and harbingers of a more Western way of thinking. Combine that with a feeble and corrupt central government and you seem to have an insurmountable obstacle.
I used to think I could come in here and change the world and everyone would get along. Now I’m just trying to help as many people as I can, on both sides of this thing, get out in one piece. Where my mission used to be to destroy lives, I think now my mission is to save them. I don’t make the bombs, I dismantle them. I no longer provide people the opportunitiy to die, I provide them the opportunity to live. Many people have laid down their lives and many more will die before everyone comes home. Protecting people is the best way I know how to make amends … and I have miles to go before I sleep.
Tom, thank you so much for your time and your service – come home safely.
Thank you for the kind words and thank you for what you do! We all have a part to play and seeing the great ways people choose to use the gift of freedom others have given them is what makes it all worth it. To honor the sacrifices of the fallen, live a life worth dying for.
*A pseudonym as been used at the interviewees request.
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