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December 5, 2011: Three U.S. Air Force sergeants are being court martialed for an improperly conducted controlled explosion of retired munitions. This incident left one airman dead and another seriously wounded. This happened in September 2010, in Iraq, and at first the air force legal personnel did not want to prosecute, but were overruled by a senior commander. Commanders usually give EOD (Explosives Ordnance Disposal) personnel a break in these matters, because disposing of explosives in inherently dangerous. But in this case, so many safety rules were broken, that it was decided to remind everyone what the rules were there for, and that lethal sloppiness would be punished.

The three sergeants were in charge of destroying old or damaged ammo by blowing it up, but in this case they violated a long list of safety regulations. First, they were detonating three times the amount of ammo (35 120mm anti-personnel shells) they were allowed to handle in that area. Then they allowed observers to be much closer (248 meters) than they were supposed to be (675 meters). The observers were not protected by a wall of any kind (although they had overhead cover). Finally, the stuff to be blown up was supposed to be in a pit or trench, not on level ground. Worse, the shells were laid out so they were pointing towards the observers, not in another direction (as the rules stipulate). When the demolition charges were sent off, one of the exploding shells sent a large fragment right towards some of the observers, killing one airman instantly, and seriously injuring another.

U.S. troops have destroyed a lot of enemy ammo in Iraq over the last eight years. In the last year or so, most of the stuff blown up is American ammo that is either defective, or not worth shipping back to the United States. Before that, there were millions of tons of Iraqi shells and bombs to destroy. There were over five million tons of munitions lying about after the 2003 invasion, most of it has apparently been destroyed or locked up. Saddam had lots of ammo left over from the 1980s war with Iran, and he never threw anything away, or used much of it for training. Coalition, and eventually Iraqi, EOD troops set to work finding, and blowing up, the stuff ever since 2003. But you rarely hear, or see, any of the spectacular explosions that the EOD people were setting off all the time in 2004 and 2005. As a result, by 2006, many roadside bombs were using fertilizer (ammonium nitrate) for explosives. This stuff works, and Iraq is a largely agricultural country, with lots of ammonium nitrate about. But fertilizer bombs are bulkier, and trickier to set off, than artillery shells or military grade explosives. Some bomb workshops have contained industrial grade explosives, either stolen from construction sites, or smuggled in.

But in the last two years, there was less and less stuff to be destroyed via controlled explosions. Some of the ammunition (ordnance) specialists who did this work got sloppy, and someone got killed. The three sergeants could be fined, thrown out of the air force and spend up to three years in jail if they are convicted of negligence and manslaughter. 

Troops have always regarded the explosive disposal operations as a form of entertainment, and they were often announced in advance so that troops could witness the explosions. It was for this reason that there are so many safety rules. This particular incident was a reminder that all rules are not stupid, especially when they involve handling stuff that blows up.

 

 


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