Wednesday, April 24, 2013

What Boston Taught Us

Any Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine that went on patrol in Iraq or Afghanistan found a majority of the events surrounding the bombing of the Boston Marathon very familiar.  Everything from the methods and tactics of the explosions, to the injuries seen and, especially the hunt for those responsible, were almost as if they had been ripped right out of the war they fought.  The mainstream media even started to acknowledge this after a fashion by calling the explosives “IEDs.”  Many veterans were left with very haunting memories coming back full force.  Others were possessed with an almost overwhelming urge to grab service rifles they no longer had, put on body armor that was now belonging to someone else, and go hunt those assholes down.  Regardless of their reaction each veteran felt a moment of horror at the thought that their war had followed them home. 

The video images of runners crossing the finish line and people cheering broken up by a huge plume of dust and flame, followed seconds later by another a few hundred meters away were shockingly familiar to anyone that ever ran a convoy.  Despite the fact that the devises were not command detonated like the troops are used to seeing, the tactics employed, first detonating one device, then another in the direction movement (in this case the opposite direction the runners were traveling) were exactly the kind of tactics that delivered so many casualties in Iraq.  Thankfully the IEDs were not daisy chained, and their overall power was weak compared to some of the anti-vehicle, and anti-personnel  IEDs that have been employed, or the damage would have been a lot worse. 

When News commentators were asking questions as to why BPD told all their officers to stay off the radios and “just head over there”, with great confusion, but any veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan could have told them without thinking that radio signals can set off IEDs that are Command Detonated.  The assumption that the cell service had been shut off (it actually was overwhelmed by people calling, not shut down) had a lot of talking heads scratching those empty skulls, but veterans knew why you would jam cell phones.  The confusion that a majority of the Americans felt at seeing the video that the news ran on continuous loop was not felt by veterans.  They knew exactly what it was.  

The pictures of the injuries were graphic and shocking to the American public.  One showing a man with is tibia completely devoid of flesh, his calf flayed open and hanging was particularly popular, but ask anyone who has gone up to a vehicle that had suffered a catastrophic kill and these types of injuries were sadly common place.  So common in fact that some of the veterans that were at the site, some of whom had just finished the marathon, leapt into action and may have prevented a greater loss of life.  Pictures of the scene, and its aftermath, awash in blood, and bits of detritus that used to be people, are pictures Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have seared into their minds. 
The manhunt that followed was very much a classic example of the counter IED ops that are still being employed in Afghanistan.  Identify persons of note, get public cooperation, and then pile on the pressure.  The use of social media showed the public the kind of SigInt (Signals Intel) that American service members use to narrow in on the cell(s) that are attacking them.  Once the bombers were identified, the HumInt (Human Intel) factor played a role, and every set of eyes in Eastern Massachusetts acted as a force multiplier leaving fewer and fewer options for the would be terrorist masterminds.  In their desperation they attempted to steal a car at a gas station to use as a getaway car. Ultimately their mistakes allowed police to zero in on them and the full force of Federal as well as Massachusetts’s Local and State Law enforcement’s assets came down on them like a ton of bricks, but not before they took one last victim, Officer Sean Collier of the MIT police department.
The final few hours leading to the standoff in a boat were extremely familiar to any veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, because the same cordon and clear tactics are the bread and butter of counter insurgency (COIN).  If one were to see the black or green clad SWAT teams they look almost identical in profile to the Soldiers now overseas.  Telling people in no uncertain terms that they needed to stay in their homes for their own safety, while actively hunting and engaging a shooter is the same thing I myself did while engaging in such missions in Iraq. The only real difference between any of the thousands of knock and clears troops did, were the flashing lights that the troops would never employ. 
The ultimate aim of the police, to capture the suspects is far different from the role the troops take.  For them the mission is usually to kill and if possible capture.  The end of the final standoff that the rest of America saw would probably have ended very differently had a platoon of US Infantry been there.  There would have been no hostage negotiators, and the air assets would have been very well armed.   The Media would also not have been allowed access, and the scanners which everyone were listening into would most definitely not been available to the public.  So, for now at least there is still a line between our military and our police forces. 

One thing any veteran of Iraq of Afghanistan could have told you is that it all could have been a lot worse.  There were as many as five bombs were used the day of the bombing, with only two going off.  Seven more devises were used, or found during the running gun battle with police to include a suicide vest.  Fortunately those additional devices did not cause aditional casualties. The explosives used were not directed, like many of the shaped charges seen in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The IEDs were not designed specifically for fragmentation, so the shrapnel was not as lethal as it could have been.  There were also no attempts made to bomb rescue workers, or to follow up the bomb with a conventional attack.  For this we should all be very thankful.

We must all hope this is an isolated incident.  It doesn’t matter if this was an actual Islamist terror attack or a couple of jack asses looking to make a name for themselves, if this is part of a larger pattern the implications are unsettling.  The war we fought may have followed us home.  The sheltered way the American public views the world may not last.  If that is the case, the veteran community will be called upon to once again serve, to be the guiding light in dark times.  We may have to teach the American people in a very firsthand way the hard lessons we learned “over there”.  The events in Boston taught us that the American people are strong and resilient, but wholly unprepared for the realities of insurgent terrorism on their doorstep.  

Perhaps one of the only silver linings we can pull out of this, is the very injuries that have so scared so many veterans have left us with a prosthetic technology that will help a lot of the victims of the bombing lead next to normal lives.  Any of the people who lost legs may actually be up and running in time for the next Boston marathon, and there are plenty of amputees from OIF/OEF that are on call to help the victims.  The experiences from the traumatic injuries both physical and mental, many service members experienced will go to help many of the victims get back their lives.  We have a whole crop of young men and women that know just what it takes to bring these people back to health, and perhaps by doing so some veterans might find a little healing themselves. 
For 48 hours the people of Boston and America had a front row seat to a little slice of the war millions of its veterans have experienced.  The exemplary work of Boston’s Finest was very reminiscent of the work that often goes unsung by American troops overseas.  For a few hours the residents of Watertown Mass knew what it was like to be a spectator of the war.  Undoubtedly this observation will be noted by some, and quietly forgotten by a majority of the American public, but maybe, just maybe it can be a bridge for people to gain a greater understanding of the things our troops have to deal with. 

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