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TROOPS TRAIN TO AVOID IEDS

TIMES STAFF WRITER
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FORT DRUM — As Afghan-istan becomes a more dangerous place for America's military, 10th Mountain Division leaders have increased training to help soldiers avoid one of their enemy's most deadly weapons: improvised explosive devices.


IEDs have killed nine 10th Mountain Division soldiers this year in Afghanistan. Eighty-five 10th Mountain Division soldiers have died in Afghanistan since 2003, compared with 115 in Iraq over the same period.


With the division shifting its focus to Afghanistan — where the 1st Brigade Combat Team and headquarters battalion are and a spring deployment is pending for the 3rd Brigade Combat Team — the dangers of IEDs are on everyone's minds.


COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT


The fight against IEDs is not physical; it takes Afghan communities to reject the forces placing them there, such as the Taliban, according to 3rd Brigade Operations Officer Maj. Joseph E. Escandon.


In the brigade's last deployment, he said, an abundance of information traded with locals made it easier to rid the area of insurgents.


"The intelligence provided allowed us to go and very surgically remove them from the battlefield and reduce some of that violence," he said.


The 3rd Brigade Combat Team "Spartans" will work under division commander Maj. Gen. James L. Terry in Kandahar. But right now, they are training for more than two weeks on post conducting "Operation Spartan Fury," a counterinsurgency training exercise.


"This is our capstone event," Col. Patrick D. Frank said, adding that IEDs are their biggest threat and a focus of the training. "We are attempting to replicate that threat."


The Department of Defense's Joint IED Defeat Organization studied the danger in the past two years and concluded that fundamental to success is winning over the support of locals, who in turn will reject insurgent forces planting the bombs.


According to a Joint IED Defeat Organization report, the total incidents involving the bombs increased 22 percent this June as compared with last June. In the same time span, the effectiveness of the attacks has increased 45 percent.


The increased use of the bombs is a response to the more than 3,000-troop surge earlier this year, according to the report. But the organization expects the trend to decrease because of American activity in the enemy-ridden regions.


An example of that is Operation Dragon Strike, in which coalition forces are fighting to get Taliban fighters out of Kandahar, where the division's headquarters battalion is, and where the 3rd Brigade is expected to go in the spring.


The brigade's nerve center — in training and later in Afghanistan — is its tactical operations center.


Inside a tan tent, rows of computers and communications equipment face a screen that projects maps and real-time battlefield data.


Behind the computers sit specialists in communication, military intelligence and logistics. They use their expertise together to consolidate communications, talk to their units and advise the commander.


If an IED strikes, they react and communicate to soldiers conducting missions.


Units at the smallest levels have to interact with communities, show a presence and provide humanitarian aid.


"There is an alternative to the Taliban, and it's the government and it is the Afghan National Security Forces," Maj. Escandon said.


Units must communicate with Afghans, whether the news is good or bad.


"Even after some things go wrong, and you explain to the locals why you conducted the operation — they know who the bad guys are — oftentimes we mitigate those consequences," he said.


COMMUNICATIONS A CONCERN


The Taliban are talented at spreading their own message.


"Insurgents are able to use word of mouth and put it out very quickly," he said.


One of their tools to compete with the Taliban is a "radio in a box," a broadcasting system about the size of a heavy-duty office printer. The brigade uses an Afghan DJ to send out information, as well as play music and poems, which are popular in the country.


"That's one thing you can do with Afghans as far as communicating from a distance," Maj. Escandon said.


For more personal communications, the brigade sent 40 soldiers to learn local languages such as Pashto, according to Command Sgt. Maj. James J. Carabello.


Small units have to talk to village leaders and residents.


"They can talk to a soldier, which adds a certain credibility," he said.


On Friday, 25 local residents toured the brigade's tactical operations center, including Jon P. Constance of Sackets Harbor.


He learned a lot about how the Army has changed in the past 30 years since he was a soldier.


"In the old days, you picked up a gun and shot someone," he said. "They're certainly teaching me a lot."


As of Thursday, 1,207 American military members have died in Afghanistan and 4,424 in Iraq since the War Against Terror began in 2001, according to an Associated Press count.

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