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Sense of Community: A Soldier Whose Trained Eye Spots IEDs for a Living

Sergeant Neal Feldmann has served two tours of duty overseas so far looking for IEDs. (Photo credit: Jennifer Moore, KSMU)

Sergeant First Class Neal Feldmann has been trained to have a sharp eye. He’s an engineer who scours the terrain for improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. 

These homemade bombs have killed more US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan than any other type of attack.

Feldmann has done two tours in Iraq. He’s had 11 IEDs blow up in front of him. He says he’s grateful for the heavy armored vehicles he was riding in at the time.

“The one that sticks out in my mind is, right before it happened, I saw the marker. I said, ‘There—' and then it was too late. I knew it was coming right as it happened. The rest of them pretty much took me off guard. But that one, I saw, literally, two seconds before it happened,” Feldmann said.

Now, Sergeant Feldmann manages all the students and instructors on the IED detection courses at Fort Leonard Wood’s CHC—the Counter-explosives Hazards Center.  On this day, he’s using his experience from the field to train these engineers. He teaches them to use their senses, as well as the mine-detecting vehicles known as the “Husky” and the “Buffalo.”

[Sound:  “Husky” arm placing simulated explosive in a target]

Improvised explosive devices aren’t new...Vietnam, World War Two…even the Civil War, he said, had its own types of homemade bombs, or booby traps.  But today’s bombs are much more sophisticated…they can be triggered by remote control, magnetic devices, infared triggers, or trip wires.

So, too, has the technology developed in the effort to scout out and find these explosives. But on rugged terrain like that of many parts of Afghanistan, you soon find that you can’t get a large mine-resistant vehicle to go everywhere you’d like. 

“There are several different ways that we spotted them. Sometimes you’d see a visual cue. Sometimes you’d see the actual explosive device. Sometimes you would see a piece of wire running off the side of the road,” he said.  “And you’d go and dig it up, and it would be an IED.”

He says sometimes it’s necessary to approach the questionable area.

I ask him what thoughts and emotions are at play when he’s working such a dangerous job.

“Usually, you’re pretty happy that you found it before it found you,” he said.

He admits there are times of frustration when you’re facing an enemy you can’t see.

“I’d rather take my chances in a gunfight than an IED fight, because I like to think of myself as a pretty good shot.  Well, in an IED fight, there’s generally nobody around when that IED goes off to return fire against,” he said.

He said he’s dealt with frustration with himself for not finding an IED before it went off. Luckily for him, the times he was hit, he didn’t have any major injuries, nor did the soldiers he was in charge of.

He says the risks associated with his job do take a toll on his family.

“I’m sure it wears on my mom terribly. I try to keep her so far out of the loop.  Me and my wife take a pretty light approach to it, I’ll be honest. And we have to. After missions, a lot of times, I’ll come home and say, ‘Well, you’re not any richer today.’  And that’s just kind of the approach we take to it,” he said.

He doesn’t know whether he’ll be deployed with another unit, but says it’s a very real possibility.

“This is my job. Just like you have a job and show up and do your job, this is my job,” he said.

He says he relies on his training and his equipment to keep him safe.

“I can’t compare this job to any other job. It’s something new and exciting every day,” Feldmann said.

Join us all this week at 7:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. as our Sense of Community Series continues featuring people who work dangerous jobs that make our community better.

I’m Jennifer Moore.