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IED hunter shares combat lessons at West Point

Dec. 12, 2011 - 07:22AM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 12, 2011 - 07:22AM  |  
Command Sgt. Maj. Todd Burnett shows indicators of an improvised explosive device to African soldiers training in Kenya.
Command Sgt. Maj. Todd Burnett shows indicators of an improvised explosive device to African soldiers training in Kenya. (Defense Department)
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Command Sgt. Maj. Todd Burnett was sitting in a mine-protected vehicle while its long robotic arm clawed the earth aside an Iraqi road — when it hooked a large drum.

As the arm raised the barrel, dirt fell to the ground, uncovering five 155mm artillery shells — which exploded with a thunderous roar.

The blast whipped back the arm and lifted the truck, dropping it on dead tires.

That improvised explosive device was one of the most memorable of 46 strikes Burnett has survived.

"That's my job. Go find IEDs," he said. "Day in and day out, to go out and search for the No. 1 killer on the battlefield."

And he was good at it. Very good.

He has been using his firsthand knowledge to train soldiers how to protect themselves from the bombs.

Getting blown up was just part of the job, said Burnett, 45, who was in charge of more than two dozen route clearance teams in Iraq in 2008 and served with the 20th Engineer Brigade from Fort Bragg, N.C.

"We're supposed to find it or have it find us before it finds people," he said. "Each time that it happened, I wasn't doing the wrong thing. I was doing the right thing."

Lessons from war

Burnett said he knows no other soldier who has survived more IED strikes during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

The reason is obvious, he said.

He ran the roads to conduct missions with clearance teams spread across the country.

"I did a patrol with every single one of them every month, and went out and saw my construction mission," he said.

From deployments in Iraq in 2005 through 2008, Burnett learned how to counter some of the enemy's tactics.

When insurgents hid bombs in roadside vegetation, tires and barrels strung to a triggerman, for example, his unit blowtorched the brush near routes and rolled up wires at bomb sites.

He also discovered that despite so many close calls, when a bomb blew, he still reacted like everybody else.

"First thing I felt like I was doing in my vehicle was the chicken dance," he said. "I was touching everything and moving around and making sure everything was still in place."

But all the blasts never shook the way he led, he said. They reinforced his style.

The day after he survived the violent eruption from those five 155mm shells, Burnett drove back without hesitation to the area where the bombs detonated, he said.

"As leaders, we need to lead from the front, that's what we do," he said.

Burnett, of Oak Harbor, Ohio, has received a Bronze Star with "V," Combat Action Badge and a Purple Heart.

But he doesn't like to talk about the medals.

"I feel very blessed to have been through the number of deployments that I've been through and the number of times I've been [struck]," he said.

And during deployments, his wife, Antonette, provided unflappable support.

Burnett said that although she didn't always agree with what he did, she understood why. "As I reflect now, it was very hard on her, but she's rock solid and has always supported me."

Continuing commitment

Home from the war, Burnett's IED experience landed him a job at the Joint IED Defeat Organization, which sent him back to the war zone to get more information on IEDs and share the agency's countermeasures with soldiers in theater.

Now Burnett is command sergeant major of West Point's corps of cadets, training and mentoring aspiring officers to lead in the IED age of warfare.

"[Cadets] have got to be prepared for the reality of what they are getting into when they step out into the world," he said. "I think there will always be IEDs."

Days after leaving Iraq in 2008, Burnett joined JIEDDO, which acquires high-tech equipment to help neutralize IEDs.

The agency was focused on three major aspects of the fight: networks of supply, devices and training countermeasures to troops, he said.

What immediately set him apart was his "real-time information" since much of the staff had never deployed, he said.

Burnett, a Ranger School graduate, decided he would train soldiers while picking up intel along the way to report back to JIEDDO.

About every other month, he deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan and rode in patrols, sometimes in as many as 12, to gather the latest news and trends.

He also traveled with the Army and talked with noncommissioned officers about how JIEDDO could help them.

After six years of stints in war zones, Burnett concluded that even the most advanced technology couldn't alone nullify the threat.

"Still on the battlefield, the thing that finds the most IEDs is the soldier," he said.

Burnett left JIEDDO as one of its most respected leaders, organization officials said.

At West Point, Burnett has picked up where he left off. He said cadets will begin formal IED field training next year.

He has given cadets combat lessons and participated in physical training and at ranges, he said.

And it's not all about IEDs.

It's about preparing cadets for the Army as second lieutenants, teaching them fundamentals, such as working with platoon sergeants and leading by example.

"I'm doing it the same way I've been doing it my whole career," he said.

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