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Penn Hills soldier gives a snapshot of Army life in Afghanistan

| Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013, 8:06 p.m.
Penn Hills Progress
Specialist Kyle Bruccoliere, Sgt. Andy Murray, Shura Mohammad and 1st Lt. Matthew Shirer pose for a photo in Afghanistan. Shirer's company returned earlier this month after a year-long tour. SUBMITTED PHOTO
Penn Hills Progress
Afghan National Army and U.S. forces from Shirer's 420th Engineer Company combined for route-clearance missions, searching Afghan roadsides for IEDs. SUBMITTED PHOTO
Penn Hills Progress
From the left, an Afghan National Army officer poses for a photo with Shirer, an Afghan Uniformed Police commander and Sgt. Doug Thomas. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Matt Shirer's year in Afghanistan found him jumping headlong into daily danger, punctuated by moments of hilarity and the occasional pot-smoking Afghan soldier.

Shirer is an Army reservist and 2003 Penn Hills graduate who recently completed a tour with the 420th Engineer Company out of Indiana, Pa.

His unit returned Feb. 6, and he spoke at the Penn Hills Kiwanis Club's Feb. 20 meeting, discussing his work clearing improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, from Afghan roads.

“We found nine the right way, and three found us the wrong way,” Shirer, 28, said, though he noted that he did not lose any of the 31 soldiers under his command during their deployment.

“We always joked that you have to be close to clinically insane to go out and look for these things,” said the 1st Lt., passing around a piece of an IED, a shred of a gallon milk-jug which had been loaded with explosives and still smelled of sulfur.

Using ground-penetrating radar and metal detectors, but mostly through plain observation, Shirer's team would locate IEDs, move them from the road and safely detonate them.

Shirer's team would head off their base — “outside the wire,” Shirer called it — in a roughly eight-vehicle convoy, protected behind heavy armor and nine-inch-thick windows.

Some of the vehicles were equipped with an exterior aluminum cage which would bear the brunt of a rocket-propelled grenade blast or in some cases, actually snare the grenade, which could then be disposed of safely.

Mainly, Shirer gave Kiwanis members snapshots of daily life in Afghanistan: poor hygiene, worse sanitation, and marijuana, at least on the Afghan side: Shirer showed one photo of a six-foot pot plant he said was growing on an Afghan army base. Occasionally, Afghan soldiers would partake, he said.

“What you've heard about there being no alcohol, no drugs, and no pornography in Afghanistan? It's not true,” Shirer said.

When it came to truth, however, particularly in a country with a myriad of ethnicities, languages and shifting alliances, Shirer said one person he could always count on was his lead interpreter, Mohammed.

“He was probably as valuable to me as my (convoy) trucks,” Shirer said. “We'd send him into a village and ask him to go in, get us information and come back. If he came back and said, ‘We don't want to be here anymore,' we'd be out of there.”

Shirer said that while the Afghan military is ineffective because of a lack of supplies and funding from the Afghan government, “they're very effective at the same time because they live in these villages, they know the terrain and they know the people.”

Shirer is stateside for four months before shipping back out, although his next assignment will be decidedly less hazardous and will feature better weather: he is headed to Germany in June to join a heavy equipment company and help rebuild roads.

Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or

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