By C. J. Chivers The New York Times
Pshosharak, Afghanistan — If luck is the battlefield’s final arbiter — the wild card that can trump fitness, training, teamwork, equipment, character and skill — then Lance Cpl. Ryan T. Mathison experienced its purest and most welcome form.
On a Marine foot patrol here through the predawn chill of Friday morning, he stepped on a pressure-plate rigged to roughly 25 pounds of explosives. The device, enough to destroy a pickup truck or tear apart several men, was buried beneath him in the dusty soil.
It did not explode.
Lance Corporal Mathison’s weight triggered the detonation of one of the booby trap’s two blasting caps. But upon giving an audible pop and tossing small stones into the air, the device failed to ignite its fuller charge — a powerful mix of Eastern Bloc mortar rounds and homemade explosives spiked with motorcycle parts, rusty spark plugs and jagged chunks of steel.
Lance Corporal Mathison and several Marines near him were spared. So began a brief journey through the Taliban’s shifting tactics and the vagaries of war, where an experience at the edge of death became instead an affirmation of friendship, and in which a veteran Marine reluctantly assumed for a morning one of the infantry’s most coveted roles: that of the charmed man.
“Goddamn Matty, man,” said Cpl. Joshua D. Villegas, the patrol’s radio operator, allowing his eyes to roam over the intact Marine after the patrol had backed away from the dud. “Lucky son of a bitch.”
Homemade bombs, which the military calls improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.’s, have become the insurgents’ killing tool of choice in the Afghan war, a complement to the Taliban’s assault rifles, machine guns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. They serve as a battlefield leveler for elusive fighters who are wary of meeting Western forces head-on.
As their use has multiplied several-fold in the past two years, bomb-disposal specialists and American officers say, the booby trap’s bomb-making cells have sharpened their skills, moving away from smaller bombs in cooking pots to larger bombs encased in multigallon plastic water jugs, cooking-oil containers or ice coolers.
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