U.S. troops in Afghanistan passed another discouraging milestone over the weekend. July ended with a tally of at least 63 Americans killed, more than two every day, the highest monthly death toll in nearly nine years of war.
Perhaps the biggest killer was the roadside bomb, also known as the IED, or improvised explosive device. The Pentagon has allocated $3 billion this year to counteract homemade bombs. But insurgents also keep adapting -- at a deadly cost.
In the northern Afghan province of Kunduz, the Army's 10th Mountain Division is all too familiar with IEDs. For Charlie Company of the division's 1-87 Infantry, explosions are part of the routine of patrols.
Driving And Waiting For The 'Bam'
At the base, Pfc. Jacob Jackson of the 2nd Engineers Battalion is helping repair his Husky, a titanic, armor-plated vehicle that looks part tractor, part road-grader and part bomb shelter. Jackson was doing route clearance along with Charlie Company on Friday, and his Husky has the scorch marks to prove it.
"When we got right past the culvert, must have hit a pressure plate [detonator]. And bam, the right side went blank. The next thing, I came to and everything was all right. I was perfectly fine," Jackson said.
Jackson's vehicle had rolled over a 400-pound bomb. That's his job, but it was his first time actually hitting one. He says it only scared him a little.
"Good adrenaline rush, but besides that, I was fine. But the vehicle did what it's supposed to do so, not a big deal," he said.
The Husky armored vehicle is one of many innovations developed over several years at war to counter the IED threat. Another is the M-RAP -- a huge, armored, short bus that, for a while, effectively neutralized roadside bombs in Iraq.
Trying To Beat The IED
But Iraq and Afghanistan are different, according to Ash Carter, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. He and his team at the Pentagon spend a large part of their time trying to beat the IEDs.
The answer, he said, was an all-terrain M-ATV.
"We learned quickly that the M-RAPs that were so useful in Iraq were not always appropriate to the terrain here. They had suspensions that were designed for flat Iraq, not for mountainous Afghanistan. So the M-ATV has independent suspension, which allows it to get off the road and therefore avoid IEDs," Carter said.
There are many more elements in the U.S. effort to detect and avoid IEDs -- surveillance, bomb-sniffing machines and trained specialists.
But the insurgents have also been working hard.
In Iraq, they fashioned explosive charges that cut through armor. In Afghanistan, the bombs just got bigger and bigger.
And despite the hardening and design changes to the military vehicles, soldiers eventually have to get out of their armored trucks to do their jobs.
Getting Hit Again And Again
For Charlie Company, hours after the first bomb hit the Husky, a second IED was waiting.
"Another one exploded right behind me," said a platoon sergeant with Charlie Company, who asked not to give his name. "And there's a big boom, and my ears started ringing, and I was disoriented, and I'd lost feeling in my left leg ... and I went down. And I was carried off."
The sergeant was incredibly lucky. An M-RAP parked next to the bomb shielded him from the blast, and he sustained no major injuries. Medics still sent him to the hospital, since a concussion can cause a traumatic brain injury.
"I walked away with nothing, thankfully. Just my bell got rung pretty good. They want to keep an eye on me. I've got two prior deployments to Iraq, and countless IED explosions there," the sergeant said.
Chances are there will be more. The sergeant says he tried to go home after two tours to Iraq. He went to college for a semester, but then a comrade died in Fallujah. He quit school and re-enlisted, racked with guilt for not taking part in the fight.
Now, he says, he's going to stay until the end. He'll see more, newer methods from the Pentagon to protect troops from IEDs. And more, newer roadside bombs from the insurgents.