Special Reports

Soldiers describe worst fears as roadside bombs

KIRKUK, Iraq — First they saw a brilliant flash. A crushing explosion followed. Electrical insulators on powerlines popped like starbursts, showering the dirt road with sparks. Next came a rain of dirt, concrete, shrapnel and other debris pelting their Humvee from the night sky.

Staff Sgt. Steven Kingan and Cpl. David Gehrig had driven into all patrolling soldiers' worst fear: an IED, the homemade bombs known to soldiers in Iraq as "improvised explosive devices."

Roadside bombs are among the favorite tactics of insurgents and terrorists in Iraq, military officials say. Insurgents rig mortars, artillery rounds or rockets with detonators and explode them remotely with a garage-door opener, cell phone or other electronic device.

The Feb. 14 explosion earned the two Idaho soldiers the distinction of becoming the first IED survivors from the 116th Brigade Combat Team's Bravo Company. Neither man was injured, although their ears rang for hours.

It was Valentine's Day night, and Kingan of Nampa and Gehrig of Boise had a feeling something bad was about to happen.

They were traveling in the Oruba neighborhood of Kirkuk on a road nicknamed "IED Alley" because that's where soldiers have found several IEDs.

"You get that weird feeling," Kingan said. "Gehrig and I kept saying, 'We're going to get hit,' and about 300 meters later we got hit."

The bomb exploded when their Humvee came within about 25 yards of a walled, three-sided concrete shelter for a trash receptacle where the bomb was hidden, Kingan said.

The flash momentarily blinded both men. Kingan yelled for Gehrig to keep driving.

"It's dark and all of the sudden it's light and then it's dark again," Gehrig said.

He drove blind down the dirt road. He turned onto a bridge before he realized his windshield had become an opaque spiderweb of shattered safety glass.

Both men's ears rang for hours, even though they were wearing earplugs designed for just such circumstances.

"It rings your bell, that's for sure," Gehrig said.

Shrapnel shattered the driver-side windshield. More shrapnel broke the Kingan's passenger-side window.

The Humvee's windshield was armored with nearly 3 inches of safety glass. Gehrig estimated that "a quarter-inch of safety glass is what stopped (the shrapnel) from coming through the windshield."

The next day, the two men returned with other soldiers to the explosion site. The men estimated the IED was made with two 155 mm artillery shells. Iraqi police later arrested an insurgent who admitted to triggering the IED, Kingan said.

Kingan and Gehrig still to patrol the same area where they survived the Feb. 14 IED.

"I've been down that road 12 or 15 times and I can't help but look at it," Kingan said.

"You pray it isn't going to happen again," Gehrig said. "But it's an uncontrollable. If it's going to happen, it's going to happen."