By the time Spc. Samuel Crockett stepped on the buried explosive, he had spent more than an hour painstakingly searching for IEDs on a Kandahar province field darkened by night.
Oct. 5, 2013, had been a lethal night. Four soldiers were dead from explosions. Dozens more were wounded.
Crockett and his platoon sergeant, Sgt. 1st Class Marodda Tedesco, had helped many of the wounded make their way to safety by clearing paths through terrain boobytrapped with improvised mines.
When Tedesco took some shrapnel in his legs, Crockett had to finish clearing the way for the Army Rangers and to administer aid to a badly wounded soldier. He would be awarded the Silver Star for his actions.
Crockett, a bomb-disposal technician with the 28th Ordnance Company out of Fort Bragg, N.C., wasn’t supposed to be there that night. He was behind the safe walls of Camp Losano at Kandahar Airfield, where he’d arrived only a few weeks before.
Crockett grew up in the small town of Pima, Ariz., where his graduating class of 2011 numbered about 40. He had wanted to be in the military since he was 9, when his brother, Levi, joined the National Guard and specialized in explosive ordnance disposal.
“It definitely drew me toward the EOD career field,” the younger Crockett said. “He didn’t try to persuade me to, but he definitely didn’t say not to.”
Crockett signed up for the Army immediately after his senior year wrestling season was over. Two years of EOD training prepared him for deployment to Afghanistan in fall 2013.
Barely out of his teens and unmarried, Crockett enjoyed the “real simple life” of barracks, food and gym at the small camp within the massive airfield — “everything we needed,” he said.
He was part of the EOD support for the 7th Ranger Regiment, accompanying it on planned missions.
When their base received the urgent call for help that night, Crockett and Tedesco had little idea about what had happened to the soldiers in Zhari District.
“We went in there kind of blind,” Crockett said.
Soldiers had approached a building in a rural area believed to harbor bomb-making insurgents.
After the soldiers called for the occupants to surrender, an Afghan woman walked out of the compound and detonated a suicide-bomb vest. It killed her and wounded several soldiers. The reverberation set off another nearby bomb. Rushing forward to help the wounded, two soldiers tripped a third bomb.
Another Afghan insurgent was killed by one of those blasts, and a second ran away from the building and set off another suicide bomb, killing himself and a service dog used for bomb detection and protection.
At that point, the commander of the operation ordered everyone to freeze where they were crouched or standing.
An Army nurse, 1st Lt. Jennifer Moreno, ran forward to tend to a wounded soldier. She detonated an IED and was killed.
Two riflemen with the 75th Regiment’s 3rd Battalion — Sgt. Patrick Hawkins and Pfc. Cody Patterson — also attempted to reach the wounded and died after triggering two blasts.
Joseph M. Peters, a special agent assigned to the 286th Military Police Detachment in Vicenza, Italy, was killed by explosions of two IEDs as he helped clear a landing zone for a medical helicopter.
Crockett and Tedesco fast-roped to the ground from a chopper to begin clearing safety paths.
“Our job was to get to the medics,” Crockett said. “They needed to be allowed room so that they could start working on the casualties there. We had a casualty collection point set up. Our focus was to get there and allow them to have freedom of movement.”
Wearing night-vision goggles, the two men began clearing a path for the medics to move closer to the wounded.
“It was definitely a slow, slow process,” Crockett said. “We’d rather take our time and do a thorough job versus rushing through and missing something.”
Once they’d cleared an area for the medics to work, Crockett and Tedesco separated.
“There were still quite a few number of personnel who were stranded, standing by themselves out in the open,” he said. “We slowly created a path to them and escorted them to the safe area.”
For the next hour they worked with no explosions or any sign of insurgents.
“The threat was what was on the ground,” he said.
After all the living soldiers had been moved safely, the two EOD techs began the job of retrieving the dead and their equipment.
As Tedesco and several soldiers were attempting to reach Moreno, another IED was tripped and the blast scattered the men. Crockett, only a few yards away, saw that Tedesco had been knocked off his feet. By the time he reached him, the sergeant had gotten to his feet but had been hit by shrapnel in the legs. Crockett led him to a clearing and returned to deal with the other soldiers hurt in the latest blast.
Crockett could see that one soldier’s leg had been blown off. He was conscious but in great pain, Crockett said.
“I hadn’t been in that area, so I didn’t know what was clear and what wasn’t,” he said. “So I went ahead and got on my hands and knees and cleared a path. Checking the ground, making sure there was nothing there as I made my way to him.” After clearing about 11 yards by hand, he applied a tourniquet to the soldier.
“Since he was so far away from everything, and I wasn’t sure of the area, I grabbed him and dragged him about eight meters down to where the medic was waiting. The medic jumped in and did what he had to do.”
Only one more soldier was left to help from the final blast, a sergeant who had been knocked off the cleared path and was now stranded in IED-laden soil.
“As I came around, I was clearing, and I stepped on one,” Crockett said.
But on a night of deadly blasts, this final detonation ended with a malfunction. “We call it a ‘low order,’ a small detonation that failed to detonate the full charge,” he said.
Asked about his reaction during those few moments when the IED was triggered and then fizzled, Crockett said he “understood what happened. But instead of thinking about what could have happened, my immediate next thought was, ‘I’m still alive, and there’s still a job that needs to be done.’ I didn’t dwell on it. I didn’t sit there and contemplate it. I just continued.”
But what about hours or days later?
He chuckled. “You can think of ‘what-if’ games all day, but it didn’t go off, and to me that’s the end of it.”
One of Crockett’s final actions that night was to retrieve Moreno’s body, again by clearing a path using his hands, “completely alone and exposing himself to the known threats in the IED belt,” according to his Silver Star citation.
The experience helped Crockett, 21, learn what a person is capable of in a “high-stress scenario,” he said.
It built his confidence in working to disarm explosives, and he wants to stay in the Army as long as that’s his job.
“That’s the plan,” he said.