KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — The boy, dressed all in white, walked purposefully toward Staff Sgt. Shaun Frank as he stood guard over a wrecked vehicle in Kandahar province.
Frank, a 32-year-old Salt Lake City native, and his squad of soldiers from 4th Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment had been standing by the roadside for two hours waiting for a wrecker to tow a vehicle that had rolled over near a cluster of buildings.
On his second combat deployment, Frank had seen his share of improvised explosive devices.
He’d never encountered a suicide bomber, but when he saw the look on the boy’s face, he knew that he was staring into the eyes of one.
The boy looked about 15, was clean shaven, dressed in white and holding his scarf to obscure the front of his body — indicators that he could be on a suicide mission.
“He had that look on his face that he was scared but determined,” Frank said of the Aug. 16 encounter. “He knew he was going to die, but he was definitely determined to make it happen.”
Frank’s eyes met the boy’s for a moment, and then the suicide vest detonated. The boy disintegrated in a hail of ball bearings that peppered a crowd gathered at the scene of the crash, injuring 15 and killing another Afghan child.
“My commander had a ball bearing that went through his neck and came close to severing his spine,” recalled Frank, who was struck by about 15 ball bearings.
One ripped into his face, another struck his eye protection. One lodged in his helmet, two fractured a finger and thumb. A pair went clear through an arm and leg, and two destroyed his iPhone.
Frank’s plates stopped three and one is still in his leg. Along with shrapnel that’s still in his face, it will require him to carry a doctor’s certificate to go through metal detectors.
His advice to other troops worried about suicide bombers: try to get “stand-off” — distance from any cover that the enemy might use to stage an attack — when you are outside the wire.
“We had no stand-off from those buildings, because the vehicle rolled over next to them,” he said.
The fact that his squad was at the site of the wreck for so long re-routing traffic didn’t help. Frank expects the suicide bomber’s accomplices dropped him off and kept driving.
U.S. military data on the number of suicide bombings in Afghanistan are classified, but officials from the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) say they make up a greater share of attacks than they did a year ago.
JIEDDO reports 3,877 IED events in the 90 days from June to the end of August, down 30 percent from the same period last year. However, attacks on Afghan security forces are up 38 percent as they take the lead, according to officials.
Frank, who is at the Warrior Recovery Center — a place for wounded troops to heal at Kandahar Air Field — said he’s eager to get back to his unit as soon as the fractures in his hand gets better, but he added: “I’ll be more vigilant.”