Mozambique team clears mines in Al Hillah

7 Jun 2003 | Army Spc. Melissa Walther

The devil dogs of the First Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Babylon got a hand at clearing up some hidden mines, when a special team of mine sniffing dogs and civilian mine clearing experts based out of Mozambique came to their aid.

The Quick Reaction Demining Force responded to Camp Babylon after three Marines were injured due to unexploded bombs.  This team of mine clearing experts' mission is to clean up minefields and unexploded bombs around the world.

Originally set up with the help of the United States State Department and the government of Mozambique, the QRDF has been getting rid of mine fields in hot spots all around the world.  When Al Hillah became one of those hot spots, the coalition partners from Mozambique showed up at the Marines' front gate.

Once the team was called, they cleared more than 100,000 square meters of ground in three fields and 150 mines in the Al Hillah area.  According to Merlin Clark, project manager for the QRDF, a second team has already cleared more than 380,000 square meters near Baghdad.

"We're like a Band-Aid," Clark said.  "We're a quick fix.  We take care of the major problem areas quickly and let other organizations take care of the other ones."

Aside from Iraq, the QRDF has cleared mines in such places as Kosovo, Nigeria, Bosnia and Afghanistan.  In spite of the danger, the QRDF has had an incredible safety record according to Clark.

"When we clear the fields, we do it to a level of 99.6 percent," Clark said.  "I would say 100 percent, but there's always the chance that we would miss a round hiding somewhere we couldn't get to it.  When we're done clearing a field, we walk through it, so you can bet we're pretty sure we did a good job."

Using specially trained dogs to detect mines and other unexploded bombs, the QRDF uses Austrian Shepherds rather than machines to make sure a field is safe.

According to Merlin Clark, project manager for the QRDF, the dogs undergo extensive training in Holland and Texas before they are matched up with their handlers.

"The handlers respond to the dogs, not the mines," Clark said.  "We have over 60 miners who take care of the mines."

Other methods are sometimes used to clear minefields, such as rollers or flails, but according to Maj. Hal Angus, First Marine Expeditionary Force engineer current operations officer, these mechanical methods often miss mines.  To be considered cleared by the United Nations, a dog team must still go through the area, he said.

The dogs are not only a low-cost investment, but they are more thorough than any machine on the market.

"Dogs are cheaper in the long run, anyway," said Clark.  "The machinery that's used to detect mines is basically just trying to replicate the dog's nose."

The idea behind the creation of the QRDF, according to Clark, was to form a de-mining force from a country that had a mine problem, but couldn't afford to take care of it by itself.

Since then, these professionals have taken the lead in mine clearing operations all over the world, he said.  The personnel of the QRDF are contracted by the Department of State through the RONCO Consulting Corp., a U.S. firm that is a leader in international mine clearing.  In addition to the RONCO supervisors, the QRDF will consist of 18 Mozambican mine clearing technicians and four specially trained mine-detecting dogs and their handlers.

This capability is the first of its kind in the world, and gives the U.S. and coalition forces the ability to conduct high-priority mine clearing operations anywhere in the world on very short notice.

"We're one of the best teams in the world," Clark said.  The force was brought to Iraq and split into two teams to handle the minefields around Baghdad and Al Hillah.

"Our job is to get in and take care of the fields where people live," Clark said.  "We don't want kids wandering in and getting hurt."

The coalition still has much work to do in Iraq bringing order to parts of the country that remain dangerous.  Teams like the QRDF have begun the search for hidden weapons at hundreds of locations, helping to make Iraq safe for children to play once more.