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IEDs in Afghanistan: A Marine's story

Sunday - 11/11/2012, 3:40am  ET

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Afghan boys point and smile as Snyder captures a lighter moment of his deployment in 2010. (Courtesy of Rob Snyder)
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Heather Brady, wtop.com

Robert Snyder, a Marine deployed in Afghanistan from March to August 2010, was stationed in the Helmand province, a hotbed for Taliban activity because of the organization's ties to ethnic groups in the region. Snyder worked to support the First Marine Expeditionary Force with tactical intelligence.

U.S. military troops and civilians in Afghanistan both incurred a spike in injuries and deaths related to improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, in 2010. The number of military casualties jumped by 60 percent while the number of injuries nearly tripled, according to the Washington Post. Afghan civilian IED casualties jumped by 75 percent as the Taliban drove forward a campaign of intimidation, according to USA TODAY.

This is Snyder's story of a young Afghan boy who died in front of him from injuries caused by an IED, as told to WTOP's Heather Brady.

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Most of the days that we worked were super-long. With my job, there's always something you can do, so you tend to overwork yourself. One morning, they were doing a Fourth of July thing on the base, a morale thing. Guys had been seeing a lot, so they decided to do a home barbecue like you would have in the States. They were grilling out meat and all kinds of stuff like that, and all the senior people were out there cooking.

I had gotten to the point where enough IEDs had exploded that were near me, or loud, or shaking things, that I was nerve-wracked about it. I didn't like it at all. I remember we were having a good time, and then you hear ‘BOOM' outside. You jump. You see that plume of smoke go up just outside the base. The base is small, so at some point we just knew, okay, once you see that, go over to where the medical guys are because you know they're going to need help. People are going to come in.

So we're sitting there. They're getting everything prepped. They're telling people, ‘Hey, go here, go there.' All of a sudden, an Afghan National Security Forces truck came rushing in base. There were people piled in the back of the pickup truck. They start bringing them out. One guy was pretty burned.

There [was] a blown-out building that they had converted into rooms you would work on people in. I would always go into the rooms because I'd already seen what it looked like for tissue to be exposed. I'd already seen what an artery bleed looks like. They teach you all the basic steps to help people survive. I felt it would be responsible for me to use that training, so I always put myself where I knew the worst person was.

In this case, it was this kid. As soon as he came in, you knew that he probably wasn't going to survive. One of his eyes was kind of messed up. His brain had popped out of a small hole in his head, so it was mushroomed out. You couldn't even see the hole 'cause it was swollen out of it. His breathing was really labored and awkward as hell.

When I saw this kid, I think what hit me hard was knowing that I walked the same exact street. Seeing what it did to a human body was enough to make me think, ‘Damn, I don't want that to happen to me.' And that kid -- maybe just one little piece of shrapnel was all it took. But that was enough to end it for him.

I remember looking at him and thinking to myself, ‘I'm about to see the first person die in front of me.' Up until that point, the people that we had were either already dead or we had gotten them stabilized and put them on a helicopter to be flown out. This one -- I was like, ‘I'm going to see somebody die right now.'

We started working on him. His breathing got slower and slower, and then eventually he died. The situation was so intense that I actually started getting light-headed. I've never been one to freak out about situations, but I just couldn't help it. I was starting to feel like I was going to pass out.

So I walked out of the room, I sat down and there were two kids outside the room that they were working on. Those kids were also dying. There was a bunch of other people. The whole scene was really chaotic. I sat down. I got myself collected. It took about 30 seconds. I got back up and I went back into the room to help out.

As soon as I walked in the room, it was like my mind was just telling me, ‘I do not want to be here,' ‘cause as soon as I walked in I started to get light-headed again. So I walked out. I sat back down again. I was feeling bad, like, ‘Hey, I should be doing something here and I'm just screwing around, about to pass out.'

I got up to walk in the room again. Between those two times trying to go back in, at some point I was just like, ‘All right, I need to go to another room. I'm not going to do any good here.' I went into the room next door and there was a guy who was burned. His whole skin was red and little layers were peeling off. The smell was disgusting, ‘cause his hair was burned and it was his burned body. He was super calm. Everybody was always super calm that came in injured. Nobody was ever screaming and yelling. If anything, they were just moaning in pain. I worked on him for a little bit, then we ended up evacuating three or four people by the time the helicopters came.

As soon as [the first] guys came in, we sent out a patrol right away. One of my guys had to go on that patrol. I was worried because, you know, maybe they had put an IED out to get us to come out and then strike us. But he had to go out there. He had to go talk to people, be with the squad and find out what happened.

Somebody had pulled up a bicycle with a bomb strapped to it and then walked away and triggered it. It was right next to a bunch of shops. They're all lined up on the street like a market, so that's why so many people came in injured.

The town that I was in did have some infrastructure, but it was very limited. Most of it was blown out. There were two main streets that intersect and there were shops right around that intersection. That was it. The police station was in a blown-out building. There was a medical center outside, right where the IED went off. There wasn't a hospital. The nearest town was hours away. Most people there don't have cars, either. If somebody gets hit with an IED, if the Americans aren't taking care of you, you're done.

[With] the boy, we just let the father go in there and start preparing his son, because they really have a method, the way they do things. As soon as somebody dies, they immediately start to wrap the body. We gave him his privacy, but he just walked in, came up next to him. I think he put his arms next to or on top of his stomach. It was emotionless. I can imagine what he was going through, but I don't know. They had been through it so much.

Once it's done, it's done. They just go clean up and start restocking everything. As soon as the helicopters take off, it just felt like everything released. You realize what just happened. This overwhelming sense of emotion hit me every time and I didn't like it. I'll [still] get it sometimes. We were doing a training thing not too long ago and they simulated that somebody had gotten shot, one of our guys, and was thrown in the back of a vehicle to be driven away. When I heard the call over the radio, I had that same feeling hit me again, even though it was a training center.

The IEDs had a tremendous effect on me. If I'm turning a propane tank on, for example, I'll imagine it blowing up in my face and imagine what the effect would be. Anything I see that I think can explode, really, I imagine doing so. Sometimes I think of nuclear attacks as well. I frequently get anxious about being surprised by another explosion and it makes me very jumpy. This was probably the most intense experience I've ever had in my life. It will probably stay with me for a long time. It's only been a couple of years, but I have a feeling it's going to be with me for a while.

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