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By Golnar Motevalli
BARCHA, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Coming face-to-face with Afghanistan insurgents' deadliest and most effective weapon -- improvised explosive devices (IEDs) -- is a near daily event for U.S. Marine Staff Sergeants Tony D'Amato and Aaron Irvin.
Irvin and D'Amato are stationed in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province where they defuse the home-made bombs and where some 10,000 Marines have been deployed to try to turn the tide on the Taliban insurgency there.
Facing death at such close range on a daily basis is something they try not to dwell on while they work.
"It's just something we're trained to do ... I like it because you're trying to figure out a problem. Because, honestly if we mess up we're not going to know about, we'll be gone," 25-year-old Irvin from Pennsylvania said.
He sounds casual but goes on to add: "Sometimes when we sit back and lay back here at night you think 'what are you doing?"
Both men are regularly hands-on with a range of deadly home-made bombs that may contain household objects such as bolts, rocks, screws, spark plugs and nails, as well as more conventional armament like mortar rounds.
As real-life experts in the dangerous art of bomb disposal, Irvin and D'Amato have mixed views of the much discussed movie on the subject, "The Hurt Locker."
While they say the film's depiction of the structure of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team in Iraq is realistic, they are livid about what they see as the film's characterisation of their army counterparts.
"I would like to meet the movie's EOD adviser and punch him in the face for disgracing our field by portraying EOD (technicians) as war-addicted psychos," 28-year-old D'Amato said.
"There is a lot of sacrifice and lost friends with this job."
On the film's depiction of the technical side of the work, he added: "I think you could do better after the conflicts are over and our techniques aren't classified anymore."
IEDs are the insurgent's weapon of choice in Afghanistan, as they increasingly became in the Iraq conflict, and are by far the biggest killer of civilians and foreign forces in the ongoing struggle between United States and its allies and the Taliban.
"CATCHING WILE E. COYOTE"
Irvin and D'Amato work with a team of sweepers -- Marines equipped with metal detectors -- to intercept insurgent-laid bombs for a company of Marines.
When the sweepers and their sniffer dogs detect a bomb, Irvin and D'Amato step in and handle the defusing which usually involves placing their own explosive material, or "C4," on the device and detonating it before anyone else can.
In a recent operation they defused at least 18 bombs.
Some were "victim IEDs," which like landmines, are activated when the victim steps on a pressure plate. Others were "command IEDs," set off by someone from a distance using a trigger.
"The worst kind is a command wire IED. If we can't find the guy and where he's triggering it from, that's the most dangerous," Irvin said.
The tell-tale sign of a command IED is a wire that snakes away from the bomb and leads to an individual with a trigger observing troops from a distance.
The device can be set off any time, the troops have no idea from where, and it becomes a race against time to defuse it.
The wire is often attached to other bombs, creating a daisy chain of IEDs. D'Amato likens it to a "poor man's minefield."
"It's kind of like Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner - when he puts the TNT in the road and he waits for the Road Runner, to do the plunger," D'Amato said, referring to an American movie cartoon series.
"You've got to get the coyote off the plunger, be faster than him."
Working against such an elusive enemy, who chooses to kill from a distance, is one of the most frustrating parts of the job.
"You feel good when you beat them and you defuse the IED, no one gets hurt, that feels really good. But at the same time you want someone to pay for putting it there in the first place," D'Amato said.
"It makes you angry to see someone getting blown up, and then someone just runs away," Irvin echoed.
(Editing by Jerry Norton)

Reuters