Michael's Dispatches

Mystery Weapons

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Mystery Weapon #2: Experts Only

The jury is . . . out.

“What in the world is this?” That sentence was translated into “Mystery Weapon Found in Iraq.” The “mystery weapon” characterization packed pizzazz, but the words were not mine. Had the “mystery weapon” been found somewhere other than Mosul, Iraq alongside 27 surface-to-air missiles, anti-tank mines, RPGs, blasting caps and tons of other munitions, the weapon likely would have been dismissed.

If loaded words were not ricocheting around the world about Iranian weapons being found in Iraq, the “mystery weapon” depicted in a photograph taken back in 2005 would likely garner attention more commensurate with its size and lethality, or lack thereof.

I wrote about the night it was captured and destroyed as part of an enormous weapons and explosives cache in “The Devil’s Foyer.” Amid all the rockets and prefabbed IEDs—some bombs were cast into concrete to resemble road curbs—discovered in the underground lair, the “mystery weapon” warranted a single photo, which I never bothered to publish until just some days ago.

Yet in order to understand why soldiers and I did not dismiss the gadget offhand as a toy, it’s helpful to understand a bit of my background. I’ve known toy guns since the days I was small enough wear feathers and ride our German Shepherd as a horse. I had real firearms before reaching puberty. I could grab a gun and walk out the back door and go shooting and hunting anytime, without asking. My friends and I made our own cannons and rockets, rocket launchers, fireworks and real bombs. Later, while in Special Forces, I was a weapons and explosives specialist.

These hands have held thousands of weapons. Yet that night, I was unsure whether “Mystery Weapon #1″ was a toy. Might have been a spud-gun, maybe a grenade launcher; definitely appeared homemade. But “homemade” does not equal “toy” and shouldn’t denote “harmless.”

Many of our soldiers are killed by devastating homemade weapons. On January 15th of this year we lost five people to a gigantic homemade weapon, a bomb, in Mosul, ironically near to where the “Mystery Weapon #1″ had been unearthed 18 months earlier.

Nothing about the “mystery weapon” leaped out and said “toy,” especially in the context of having been captured alongside of the 27 very real SA-7 missiles, the kind sometimes used to attack our helicopters. In larger caches, dozens of types of weapons are often uncovered, leaving even experienced soldiers baffled at some of the finds, which might actually merit the “mystery” label. At the same moment when even experts are straining to answer “what is that?” a battlefield photographer who has seen a seemingly endless series of caches might shoot numerous macro shots of every number and mark on every found weapon. But there was nothing about the “Mystery Weapon #1″ that begged to be photographed from every angle beside a ruler.

This ball came from the same hole.

In the dispatch “The Devil’s Foyer,” the discovery of the item above is described as follows:

Most of the explosives were squirreled away in a room hidden under a filthy barnyard floor. The access point was a small square hole that opened into a room about half the size of a large semi-truck. It was packed with munitions. Floor to ceiling packed. Wall to wall packed. To disassemble the room, soldiers removed bombs just to stand on other bombs, so they could dig through stacks of bombs until they reached the floor. Then they duplicated this sequence, to create space for two soldiers to work, and finally, there was room for three.

The temperature down there was at least 20 degrees beyond any measure of hot. The air was filthy with dust, darkness and the menace that wafted like a stench off all the bombs, bombs and more bombs. I was sitting on bombs and missiles that I could not identify, there was not enough floor cleared for three men to stand. There were mortar rounds, some with fuses, some without. Some fuses had no safety pins. Some rounds had charges on the fins.

There were surface-to-air missiles, RPGs, and strange munitions of various sorts. The danger was severe, but with this many explosives, it wouldn’t matter if you were in the hole or a hundred yards away; if this thing blows, game over.

The soldiers inside the hell hole handed up a green ball, about the size of a large cantaloupe, and handed it over to another soldier who began to walk with it, and he said, “I wonder what this is?” Someone looked and said, STOP. Don’t move. Don’t put it down. You hear what I say? Don’t move. Wait right here.” “Everybody stop!” he said, “Tell the people in the hole to stop.” An Explosives Ordnance Specialist named SFC Perry came over to see the cause of the commotion. Even in the darkness, he saw it for the danger it contained. In a calm but clear voice he said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, what is this? This looks like a sub-munition.” I was actually the “someone” who recognized the green ball as something potentially devastating with the slightest mishandling. I saw soldiers handing it up from the hole in the earth, and alarms blared in my head: RED ALERT. It looked like a sub-munition, which translates into FREEZE. In fact, I wondered if it might be a chemical weapon sub-munition. It might have been the smoking-gun of the war. Who knows? In any case, it looked imminently lethal.

An EOD (Explosives Ordnance Disposal) expert took the ball, and very gently and carefully, slowly walked away. He was unsure what the ball was.

I followed him, and asked for a better picture.

Later, I asked many people what this was, but nobody to my knowledge was ever able to say definitively what it was or where it came from. Nobody was able to give it a name, origin, and probable year of birth.

The expert placed it alone, and some hours later, blew it up.

“Mystery Weapon #1″ was a curiosity, but nothing more. Mystery Weapon #2 leaves me wondering, truly, what in the world is that?


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