In 2010, British Warrant Officer Kim Hughes dismantled seven bombs by hand without protective clothing in a single day, so four seriously injured soldiers, and the bodies of two dead comrades, could be recovered. He was awarded the George Cross for this act of bravery.
The previous year, he defused 119 Taliban IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) during a six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan.
Hughes talks to Kathryn Ryan about about the confidence and sense of humour it takes to work in bomb disposal and life on the frontlines in the deadliest part of Afghanistan – the subject of his memoir Painting the Sand.
Hughes first joined the army as a driver and spent some time in Northern Ireland before moving into bomb disposal.
“The training is immense. I went from being a driver, driving big army trucks up and down the country to being sat in a classroom.
"They don’t really teach you that fine line between confidence and arrogance that I crossed on many occasions, but they teach you to keep a level head. Confidence comes hand in hand with bomb disposal.”
Hughes recalls defusing his first IED in Afghanistan like it was yesterday.
“I remember most of the bombs that I did in Afghanistan. They’re burned into your brain. It’s the excitement and adrenalin, but also not wanting to get it wrong...”
When it comes to bomb disposal, 'getting it wrong' couldn't be more catastrophic. A certain gallows humour helps him and his comrades do what they do, Hughes says.
“If you want to do this kind of work you have to have a sense of humour, and it’s a kind of weird, sick sense of humour because you’re doing a job that will kill you in an instant. You need to able to laugh, and people look at you weirdly.”
IEDs are, as the name implies, unpredictable, and constructed in a variety of ways from whatever objects are at hand.
“They’re not quality controlled, they are mass-produced by the hundreds and thousands and thrown into the ground during the hours of darkness. You could walk past one of these things and it could function due to the vibrations, at other times you could step on one and it wouldn’t function.”
Hughes and his team disarmed IEDS covertly so the bomb-makers wouldn’t learn their methods and booby-trap the devices. They set off smoke grenades to screen them as they worked, he says.
The tools they used were often pretty rudimentary, he says.
“My best friend over there was my paintbrush. That for me was the best piece of kit I ever had. We didn’t have the luxuries of bomb disposal suits and robots over there, purely because the tempo of operations was so busy and fast.”