Bomb Disposal expert Kim Hughes: Painting the Sand
Kim Hughes GC is the most highly decorated bomb disposal expert serving in the British Armed Forces. When a platoon he was assigned to was caught in the middle of an IED field in Afghanistan and soldiers in front of him were being mutilated and killed by the second, Kim stepped up and disarmed seven bombs with only a pair of wire cutters and supremely skilled hands to save his colleagues. The Ministry of Defence called it the single most outstanding act or explosive ordnance disposal ever recorded in Afghanistan. In his time on duty, he defused 119 improvised explosive devices and was awarded the distinguished George Cross medal. It was a genuine honour for The MALESTROM to get the chance to sit down with Kim for him to tell us first hand about walking the fine line between life and death.
The MALESTROM: Kim, how did you first end up in the army?
Kim Hughes: I grew up with a military background; my father and my stepfather were both serving, I grew up in Telford and really wasn’t going places. I struggled at school and to be honest, it was really the only thing that had a calling for me. I had no qualifications, I had nothing and I subsequently joined up and that was the only real option I had.
TM: Your parents separated when you were young and it wasn’t such a happy time for you. Did your childhood have an influence in looking for an escape?
KH: Absolutely, my upbringing was probably similar to a lot of other kids in that area. I was no good at school, my stepfather was abusive and I really wasn’t going anywhere and the army was an absolute escape for me. The army gave me the ability to go out and do something different. Subsequently, as soon as I was of age I chose to join; that’s what I wanted to do and that’s what I went and did.
TM: How did you end up as a bomb disposal expert?
KH: Well, I joined initially as a driver actually. Little did I know the army had a quota and I was one of five or six who joined on the day and I was told being a driver was the best thing in the world, and I went and did that for a few years until I realised it wasn’t getting me to where I wanted to be. It was quite dull if I’m honest, and it was only when I went to Northern Ireland on an operational tour with the bomb disposal teams as their driver that it opened my eyes to other possibilities in the armed forces, I became absolutely obsessed with bomb disposal while working with the guys and seeing what they were doing.
TM: Do you need a certain temperament, a level-headedness and also a high level of intelligence?
KH: You’ve definitely got to be able to think outside the box. It’s not just a case of just going and doing, every day is a different day and every device is different. It’s not something you can just read out of a book and book will tell you how to do it. You’ve got to have the right head for the job and you need to have a really sick sense of humour too, because you do a job where if it goes wrong it can instantly kill you. But it’s fun at the same time, which is a bit of a weird sort of thing, and not be distracted by things you haven’t seen before. You need to be able to sit back and just work it out.
TM: It’s interesting that you weren’t academic and you didn’t achieve very much at school, but the level of intelligence it must need to defuse a bomb must be pretty high?
KH: Yeah, it does, but I did struggle at school and I think I spent my last day at school walking out and putting my middle finger up because I felt that it had taught me nothing, no life skills and I walked away with no qualifications. Now, I am not for one minute saying that’s the school’s fault, as it was probably more my fault than anyone’s. Doing bomb disposal for me is a whole new level of thinking, certainly the high-end level of electronics and being out in Afghanistan and getting amongst it gives you a completely different perspective.
TM: How thorough was the training when starting out?
KH: It takes a while. I am an ammunition technician by trade, and I joined thinking I would become an ammunition technician and then I’d move straight into bomb disposal, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. What that means is that everything that the British army uses from your basic bullet, right the way up to ballistic missiles and weapons you learn about. You learn how they work and then you go into ammunition storage and so forth, so you become a technician at the end of the training and you’re not bomb disposal qualified, that is something separate.
When I first transferred from being a driver it really disappointed me because I wanted to walk down the road to a bomb, so the whole process of getting to where I am today took between five and seven years. There are various courses and you then finally you get selected to do your high-threat course, which is learning how to defuse a bomb in a high-threat area like Afghanistan, and there is a massive amount of self-pressure too. Once you pass that course which is extremely hard, you’re then told you’re going on tour.
TM: When you first got the call-up for Afghanistan, what were your thoughts?
KH: Well, you’re suddenly hit with the realism that you’re now going to a war zone and it’s going to be real. Having spent so many weeks playing around with devices that if you’re going to get them wrong, the most that’s going to happen is they will buzz at you, or someone will tap you on the shoulder and say, ‘No, you’re doing that wrong.’ Then, you’re going to a war zone where if you do it wrong, you’ll instantly turn into red mist. So, it’s kind of a reality check.
TM: That’s pretty frightening! Your first port of call was camp Bastion. What was that like?
KH: I remember flying in there and it was like flying into Birmingham City airport. It was just alive with MPs coming and going, gunships and aeroplanes landing and going every few minutes. If it was in the UK it would be very similar to Luton airport, that’s how busy it was and it was ridiculous; it was the size of a small city. There’s so much going on, there are people coming and going on ops and as we flew in there were guys waiting to get on our flight to go home. We were all fresh and new in our new uniforms and they were looking all old and haggard because they’d been on tour for six months, and then you’ve got all of the logistics going on and all the moving parts; I mean it is alive.
TM: It sounds quite daunting?
KH: Yes, it’s not something you would think would be in the middle of Afghanistan. It had its own traffic police, it had its own restaurants and canteens and various nationalities of different camps and everyone coming and going and then after a 15-20 minute helicopter ride, you were in the badlands of Helmand, it’s insane.
TM: What exactly is Helmand province like?
KH: Well, when you go out of the camp, you go out into the green zone so you’re away from the built-up areas, you have vegetation growing from left to the right, and although it’s so primitive, its probably one of the most beautiful country’s I’ve ever been to, but at the same time, its probably one of the most horrendous country’s I’ve been to. I mean, every step you take could be your last step with the amount of IED’s (Improvised Explosive Devices) that are in the ground. You are walking amongst local nationals that are smiling at you when you don’t know if they’re the Taliban or not and want to kill you.
TM: So, you can’t tell them apart?
KH: No, no you can’t and you go from extremes. You could be in Lashkar Gah, so you could be in a very built up area and then you move further into raw Helmand where you’re in the middle of a desert, or you could be in the middle of very little vegetation around you, or you’re in a small bazaar. There are so many different extremes to Helmand province, but as I said it’s also beautiful, but everywhere you walk you’ve got to walk with a metal detector on your feet because you don’t know what you’re going to stand on.
TM: That must be terrifying?
KH: It’s very daunting, and if you were to say you weren’t scared I’d say you were either a liar or you’re an idiot. It’s a weird feeling and certainly, as the technology changed with regards to what the Taliban did and how they planted their devices, we went through phases of being able to find everything they did to struggling to find a bomb at all because of the lack of metal content in the pressure plates that were being produced. We ended up standing right next to an IED and we didn’t even know it was there, and it’s purely by luck that you haven’t stood on it. And that kind of feeling everyday, solid for six months gets to you a little bit.
TM: Of course. Have you had your heart and blood pressure checked?
KH: Huh, yeah! The one good thing about Helmand is that if you wanted to lose weight that would be the place to go.
TM: How strange and abstract is the Afghan culture with drug lords, the Taliban, poppy fields and all the drug dealing?
KH: The culture is what the culture is, and we are very respectful of various country’s cultures where we go, and the armed forces are extremely good on briefing that prior to any tour, bringing in national interpreters and culture briefs. But going back to the drug lords etc… there’s a picture of me in my book where I am standing in the middle of a marijuana field and it’s insane, absolutely insane, we’re talking acres and acres of just pure drugs, and you’re stood in the middle of it and it’s just crazy, it is a different world, but it is just their way of life. When I walked into it I thought I hadn’t seen vegetation in a long time and then it dawned on me that I was standing in marijuana that was taller than I was.
TM: It’s a strange motivation that drives an individual to be a bomb disposal expert when you know you could be killed?
KH: Yeah, it is a strange one. Why would you walk towards something that you know could kill you? I often joke and say, ‘You know what, it pays the bills.’ It’s odd, it’s a mixture of wanting the adrenalin rush when you do it, and you’re achieving something as well. You’re pulling a bomb out of the ground. You’re winning. When you pull a device out of the ground you’ve beaten the Taliban at their own game. You certainly shouldn’t do the job if you think you might die because we’re trained to such a high level that you get on with it. We always say that if it all goes wrong we’re not going to know about it.
TM: One of the most notable chapters in the book is about the horrifying operation in Sangin?
KH: For us, it was just another day on the ground and we were attached to the Two Rifles battle group and the operation was to go out and clear a route. The infantry was going to take us to the starting point and we were going to clear an area. So, the infantry was in front and trying to get us there and they got to the route that they wanted clearing, and we were only on the ground about ten or fifteen minutes when an infantryman triggered a pressure-based IED and, subsequently was very seriously injured.
We were about one hundred metres back when this occurred, which in Afghanistan on patrol is quite far, and we all went to ground, listening to what was going on and trying to find out who was injured. I instructed my search team to clear a helicopter landing site so we could evacuate the casualties. Then, a second explosion took place in front of me and at that point, we moved forward because we heard there were multiple casualties.
TM: What were you surrounded by? What were you looking at?
KH: It was in a dry river bed called a ‘wadi’ and it felt like time almost slowed down for me, like it was slow motion and you couldn’t really hear anything, but then we got kicked back into reality and everyone was thinking, ‘What hell is going on here?’ It’s such a weird thing to take in. It was then that I started noticing what appeared to be lumps of military uniform, and then when I looked at the guy who first got blown up, I saw this red ball of something moving and I didn’t know what it was. Then I saw this hand covered in blood just reaching for the sky and I realised it was what was left of a soldier who’d been blown up. We then started shouting at everyone, ‘Help your mate! Help your mate!’ The sergeant shouted back that they couldn’t. They were all in an IED minefield.
TM: You’d walked into an IED minefield?
KH: Yeah, so they’d been told not to move, and it was then that I started hearing screaming coming from the left of where I stood. What had occurred after the first soldier had stood on a device was that the medics went to him to administer first aid and when they put him on a stretcher to carry him away, one of the medics had stepped on another IED device and subsequently both of the stretcher bearers got killed outright.
TM: That’s horrendous!
KH: Yeah, and the guy who was on the stretcher who had already been blown up the first time was blown up again, and was somehow still alive. He was in a bad way and there was also a young female medic who’d got blown about 20 metres or so and she was screaming and her leg had been snapped in two and was in quite a bad way.
TM: And you’re in the middle of all of this?
KH: Yeah, there were just bodies and soldiers strewn all over the place.
TM: Its sounds like Dante’s Inferno, that vision of hell?
KH: Yeah, kind of. It wasn’t fun. In a medical situation, when you’ve got two people injured and one’s screaming their head off like we had there, the one who’s screaming knows they’re in pain so you just leave them to it, but the one who’s unconscious, who doesn’t know his injuries, you need to sort out first.
KH: Yeah, it’s important to get to the guy that’s barely alive.
TM: How did you cope with that situation right then? Did you find that you naturally had the resolve to keep calm or were you panicking and scared inside?
KH: I think the armed forces are very good at being able to deal with situations that are put in front of you. It is two-fold: we are highly trained and of course, it is down to the individual too. But we’re taught to defuse IED’s and not to flap.
TM: That’s one thing, but seeing people around you being mutilated is another?
KH: Yep, it is. But our job was to assist the injured and we also had fallen dead, so the priority was getting the injured people out and then getting everyone else out of that area so, I sent my searchers forward with their metal detectors to start clearing the area around the injured, clearing a path. It was then that one of my searchers shouted that he had found another IED right next to where the female medic was laying, and she was extremely lucky that she never landed on it. It was at that point that I instructed one of my searchers to direct me to the IED, so it was a massive team effort. Once I got to the IED, then a medic started administering first aid to the girl and I started to diffuse the IED. Now, in theory, as long as I’m careful, nothing should go wrong.
TM: Because you know how to diffuse it?
KH: Yeah, and I mean every device is different. There isn’t a manual that tells how to diffuse each device because the manual would be infinite. So, it’s a case of looking what’s in front of you and making a technical assessment of how it works and doing something, and that’s where I uncovered part of a pressure plate and found a number of wires that I needed to attack. And because of the proximity of the medic, I needed to render the device safe there and then without putting on any protective clothing because there was a grave and immediate threat to lives of many. Once that device was done, one of searchers called me and we found another, and then subsequently seven further devices were found around us.
KH: And I had to render them safe there and then so we could extract the casualties. It was like a game of leapfrog. At least five of the other devices were immediately hindering the evacuation. It was relentless.
TM: That’s extraordinary. What was the process? Do you just keep your concentration on the one job that needs doing and block out everything else?
KH: Yeah, absolutely. You’re kneeling there in front of a device with 20 kilograms of something that could kill you; it’s a reality check. But you do just get on with it. You’ve got a problem and you’ve got to get on and solve it. While I was trying to diffuse it, my searchers around me were finding more and more and more and they were putting themselves at risk. That whole task from start to finish was done in about 45 minutes.
TM: Did it feel like it took hours? Or did it go quickly?
KH: No, it went so quickly. But at the end of it, I thought, ‘Did that really just happen?’
TM: When you finally got back to camp, did you take a long time to calm down? How did you feel?
KH: Once the casualties were out, we were able to slow down and we were then able to help the fallen soldiers. When everyone was out, we then had to destroy the devices in situ, because although they were safe, there was still an explosive starter, which you’re not going to leave for the Taliban to dig back out of the ground and use again. Once it was agreed by the hierarchy that we weren’t going to continue with the operation because we’d taken so many hits, we got back to the camp and I asked my guys if everyone was alright because we’d seen some pretty horrible shit, and everyone came back and said, ‘Yeah, we’re alright!’ They were so professional. Within a couple of days, we were doing it again. Two more soldiers were killed and we were there trying to recover their bodies and clearing the area for them. And that was the daily business for us. I know that sounds horrendous, but that’s what we’re used to. Funnily enough, when we weren’t out there diffusing bombs we were bored.
TM: Without trying to sound too over the top, what you and your team did was an extraordinary act of heroism. We’re guessing that you didn’t feel heroic though?
KH: You’re right. I was awarded the George Cross for that day but I wear it for every one of my team. I would never have done that on my own.
TM: Isn’t that one of the highest awards you can win?
KH: Yeah, it sits with the Victoria Cross and they rank equally with each other. But we don’t do our job to get medals, we do it because we love the job and you know what? As soon as that job was done, my guys were ready to roll out again and go into action and that’s the way it was out there. You get back on the horse and pull IED’s out of the ground because that’s what we were trained to do and that’s what we wanted to do.
TM: I believe it was non-stop for you because you were also in a vehicle that ran over an IED and got blown up?
KH: Yeah, yeah, twice actually! The first time we got blown up we were all right, and the second time was in a Danish vehicle I got blown right through it and that one knocked me clean out. I did actually feel a bit of a fraud because there were guys getting blown up and losing arms and legs and I just got whacked on the head and knocked unconscious; it was nothing compared with what happens.
TM: You are certainly quite an inspiring individual. When you got back home to England, did you ever think that the biggest award was getting away with your life?
KH: Yeah, you do come back with some thoughts. When we were back and we heard that a really good friend of mine, Oz Schmid had been killed, then it really hit home about the enormity of Afghanistan! You know I’d seen Oz a few weeks before and he was his normal boisterous self, and then to be told that Oz had been killed, it’s a reality check. I was also out there when a friend of mine called Dan Shepherd was killed and we had to go and clear the explosion site of where he was killed – you do start to think whether it is all worth it. But you have to look at the bigger picture, we walked away and gave the Afghan nationals their country back, out of the hands of the Taliban and to be able to fend for themselves and govern their own country. We achieved that by what we did.
TM: As you said in your book – war is hell!
TM: Finally is there any words of wisdom that you can offer our readers from your experiences?
KH: Yes, I would fundamentally say embrace patience, because so many people are in a rush to get to where they want to go, and also be careful about what you wish for! But embracing patience is the best piece of advice I can give.