Photo Essay: The Real Hurt Locker

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Welcome to the hurt locker: The improvised explosive device, or IED, has long been the weapon of choice for the insurgency in Iraq and now, increasingly, in Afghanistan. To take care of the threat, groups of elite explosives specialists, called Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) teams, are called in to dispose of, or safely detonate, IEDs. The Oscar-nominated film, The Hurt Locker, portrays one such team working in Baghdad. Critics say the film skews reality by depicting soldiers as thrill-seekers and rebellious and by portraying combat inaccurately. The following are a selection of photos from Iraq and Afghanistan of real explosive specialists -- and the very real explosives they work with. Above, an Iraqi soldier from a Bomb Disposal Company wears a protective bomb suit during an EOD demonstration on October 6, 2009, in northern Iraq.

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The trigger: At the height of the war in Iraq, in 2006 and 2007, IEDs were causing 60 percent of American casualties. At that time, Afghanistan was seen as the forgotten war. Not anymore. Following just 81 IED "events" (explosions or identifications) in Afghanistan in 2003, the increase in the last few years has been precipitous; there were 2,718 events in 2007 (causing 2,293 casualties) and 7,228 events in 2009 (leading to 6,037 casualties). And by mid-2009, IEDs were behind 75 percent of coalition casualties in Afghanistan, with the use of old military munitions being replaced by homemade explosives. In response, the U.S. military has gone on the offensive. Here, a U.S. bomb disposal team sends out a robot to disarm a roadside bomb in October 2005 in Baghdad.

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Absorbing the blast: The U.S. military has put billions of dollars into training EOD teams, purchasing bomb-defusing robots and investing in IED-proof vehicles like the American-made 24-ton Buffalo Mine Protected vehicle to counter the IED threat. These highly armored vehicles used by EOD teams (they tend not to use Humvees anymore, like in Hurt Locker) are designed to dig up buried bombs or snag tripwires and cost nearly one million dollars each. These lumbering vehicles are an obvious target; while being an EOD specialist is certainly a dangerous job, most specialists are not killed from working directly with IEDs -- the majority are killed in their convoys by roadside bombs. Above, a U.S. Marine defuses a Taliban-laid IED on March 21, 2009, on a road near Baqwa, Afghanistan.

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Group therapy: In Afghanistan, an ongoing search-and-destroy mission, called Taskforce Paladin, has EOD teams scouring Afghan dirt roads for hidden bombs and tripwires, in what are dubbed Route Clearance Patrols. The job of these teams is so dangerous that it's volunteer only. There are more than 15 counter-IED taskforces deployed in Afghanistan alone, dismantling unexploded bombs and collecting evidence from bomb sites. Unlike in Hurt Locker, EOD teams rarely operate alone, in three-person teams; they are usually part of a convoy. An Iraqi soldier wearing a protective suit approaches a blast site during a demonstration for Iraqi officials in northern Iraq in October 2009.

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A piece of the puzzle: Around 50 percent of IEDs explode before they can be found and cleared. In a typical operation dealing with a post-blast scenario, a single specialist begins by approaching the exploded ordnance to check for secondary bombs within the blast radius (usually around 25 meters). Once the area is deemed secure, the team moves in, takes soil samples and tries to figure out the type of explosive and the initiation method. The hope is to find forensic patterns that point to certain groups. It's a cat-and-mouse game -- as EOD teams catch on, bomb-makers evolve too. Here, huge amount of munitions, handed over by Afghan villagers in Zabul Province, are being prepared to be safely detonated in August 2004.

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Shifting ground: Demolition charges being set on a cache of rockets and mortars in Zabul Province, Afghanistan in 2004. Insurgents are constantly adapting to U.S. changes. For example, IEDs have gotten far more powerful in Afghanistan in the last year alone. In 2008, about 40 percent of charges weighed in at over 25 lbs. In 2009, that figure had risen to more than 75 percent -- with a larger chunk of those being over 100 lbs. Bomb-makers are also getting more sophisticated, using multiple triggers and strategically planting secondary bombs meant to target those who investigate an initial bomb blast.

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Suiting up: The method favored in Hurt Locker (but not as frequently in reality) is for specialists to don a special protective bomb suit and dispose of live IEDs manually. An EOD team will only do this when it is fairly sure of the trigger type or in order to place charges where suspected roadside bombs may be hidden. Of course, there is always a risk, and hence the movie's title: If you get too close and the ordnance explodes, you'll be in the "hurt locker." Above, EOD personnel prepare to blow up a stockpile of bombs left behind by al Qaeda in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, in December 2001.

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In high demand: A bomb disposal team blows up munitions in Zabul Province in 2004. With IED deaths on the rise, it is no surprise that military-explosives specialists are in very high demand.

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Heroes: A hole is left where a Taliban anti-tank mine was dug up by U.S. Marines on March 21, 2009, near Baqwa, Afghanistan. If there is one thing Hurt Locker does get right, it is that these EOD specialists are genuine heroes, taking on a thankless task and risking life and limb each day. According to the EOD Memorial Foundation, at least 64 EOD technicians have died in the Iraq and Afghan wars combined.

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