CAMP BETIO, Kuwait—Twelve years ago, not long after the start of the first ground war on Iraq, Marine Staff Sgt. Michael Close rolled through a breach in an Iraqi defensive sand berm and into a desert blooming with land mines.
"There were thousands of mines, just lying on top of the ground. It looked as if the Iraqis had dumped them out of the back of a truck. They left a minefield that was probably 1,200 meters wide behind."
And while he'd expected land mines, he hadn't expected the number of different types he was looking at: "Everything from toe-poppers to anti-tank mines. It looked like a pizza, with everything. You can bet we'll be seeing a similar sight if we go in again."
More than a million unexploded mines are still in the region from that war, and Iraq is thought to have been busy in recent months laying more. How many more, no one is guessing. But according to a military guide to Iraq, Saddam Hussein's army has at least 42 types of mines, purchased from 16 different countries.
The Marines of the 7th Engineering Support Battalion have been told that clearing some of those mines might be their mission. So on Friday, beneath a corner of a 10-foot sand berm, squads of Marines practiced finding mines. To make the drill realistic, two were armed with M-16 rifles as security.
Cpl. Caleb Ewing, a recent college graduate, wonders if the practice prepares him for the real thing.
"We usually train in the United States, where there aren't a lot of live mines around," he said. "If this were for real, I can't help but think there's got to be a better way. But it's a mission, it's a mission."
The work is painstaking and personal. One Marine waves a metal detector just above the ground as he slowly walks a straight line out, for 50 yards. He wears an earphone to listen to the steady "beebeebeebeebee" the wand makes as it passes over sand, listening to see if it changes to a squealing "baaaaaa," indicating metal. The louder the squeal, the more the metal. Each squeal requires a mark in the sand.
On this day, the only squeals are for nails that had fallen in the sandy ground during the building of American bunkers. If it were for real, each squeal would indicate a possible mine, although plastic mines, of which Iraq possesses many, create a squeal that barely differs from the beeping.
A second Marine waits until the first is 30 meters out before following, also slowly. He carries a wooden mine probe and searches where markings had been made. Metal isn't used, because some mines are designed to explode when struck with metal.
When the prober comes to a mark, he lies flat on the ground and slides the probe through the ground at a 45-degree angle or less, no more or he risks setting off the mine. If he feels the smooth, man-made surface of a mine underground, he marks it, and calls for the next Marine in line.
The third Marine, with a supervisor, determines if the metal is a mine. If it were, he would lay a high explosive charge on top, connecting it to any other potential mines in the line. No mine would be detonated until all are marked and ready.
In real life, they'd search three strips, each about three meters wide, to make a path wide enough for a truck.
Cpl. Robert Sharp, a college student in civilian life, says the most important part of the training is getting one's ear to notice small differences in pitch. It takes about 15 hours of practice for someone with a good ear to notice a small nail, which will create a squeal similar to that of some plastic mines.
"A little difference can mean a big mine," he said. "It's good to notice these things."
(Schofield reports for the Kansas City Star.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.