The bomb squads
SUMTER, S.C. -- The U.S. Army's bomb disposal teams are portrayed as reckless thrill-seekers obsessed with saving lives by putting their own on the line in the Academy Award-winning movie "The Hurt Locker."...
SUMTER, S.C. -- The U.S. Army's bomb disposal teams are portrayed as reckless thrill-seekers obsessed with saving lives by putting their own on the line in the Academy Award-winning movie "The Hurt Locker."
In reality, the bomb teams aren't reckless.
And they're not all in the Army.
Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina has one such team -- the 20th Civil Engineering Squadron. Its airmen go into the world's worst hot spots, including Iraq and Afghanistan, put on blast suits and disarm roadside bombs -- improvised explosive devices, or IEDs as the military calls them -- most often by hand.
"People say, 'You must be crazy,'" said Master Sgt. William R. Sistler, a 21-year bomb disposal veteran and chief of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Flight, as the unit is called. "But you've got to have a sense of adventure. There's a thrill to it. An adrenalin rush."
More and more, the Afghanistan conflict is becoming a war on IEDs. Since 2006, the U.S. has spent almost $15 billion to develop strategies and equipment to detect the bombs, and infiltrate and attack bomb-making networks.
The number of roadside-bomb incidents in Afghanistan spiked to 8,994 in 2009, up from 2,677 in 2007. This year, there have been even more -- 10,500 by Oct. 21.
Military officials attribute the growing number of Afghanistan bomb incidents to the growing number of coalition troops in that country.
For Tech Sgt. Scott Ackeret, 32, of Milwaukee, Wis., Afghanistan is just a change of scenery.
"The war zone in our career path is always changing," said Ackeret, who has deployed five times, disarmed 160 IEDs and been hit by three.
Ackeret, married with a 3-year-old daughter, said the biggest difference between "The Hurt Locker" movie and his job is the security that other troops provide for bomb-squad members. In the movie, bomb squads battle insurgents with small arms while disarming a bomb. In real life, the bomb squad is called in after an IED is found by a route-clearance crew or others. Soldiers or Marines secure the area while the bomb team goes to work.
That makes the job a little safer than you might think.
"The bomb is the easy part," Ackeret said. "There's always something else going on, like an ambush. It's the stuff you can't see that gets you."
Adds his boss, Sistler, of New Jersey: "We're not combatants. We're not hunters. There are other guys who have to return fire."
Still, the enemy places a special premium on the heads of bomb-disposal team members, trying to make the war on IEDs more difficult and more expensive in blood for the U.S. and its allies.
Sistler noted the Taliban has raised the bounty for killing a bomb-squad member to $50,000 from $25,000.
"We think, 'That's it? Just $50,000?'" he said. "But when your boots are on the ground, you can't think of things like that. Who else is going to do this? It's kind of ridiculous. But it's an important job."
Often the enemy will place two or more bombs in the same area -- one easy to find, the others intended to pick off the bomb-squad team. The first often is triggered by a vehicle running over a pressure plate. That's called "going Neanderthal," or unsophisticated, Sistler said. When the bomb-disposal crew arrives, secondary bombs can be detonated by an automobile key fob or cell phone.
For Shaw bomb-squad team member Staff Sgt. Michael Fink, a Sumter native, that danger became all too real April 8, 2008. His team partner, Tech Sgt. Tony Capra of Maryland, was blown up before his eyes, the victim of a trip wire on a bomb that Capra was approaching.
"Any time you see a friend die violently like that, it sticks with you," said Fink, who has been in bomb disposal for 11 years. "We spent six months together sitting in the same truck 3 feet apart."
Fink has not deployed since.
But he said bomb disposal is his chosen occupation and he wants to get back to it.
"I feel incomplete," he said. "I want to finish what I started. There is still work to do."
Despite the danger involved, Senior Airman Kristina Stubbs, 22, of Baltimore, Md., "can't wait to be deployed."
To get into bomb-disposal school, you have to have some of the highest aptitude scores in the Air Force, which requires the highest aptitude scores in the military, she said. Even then, there is a 50 percent wash-out rate.
"It's not all brawn," she said. "It's brains, too."
Stubbs said she went into bomb disposal "because it sounded fun. It was different and something that would make a difference. My dad thinks it's cool. But my mom's nervous. You know how moms are."
Stubbs wants to go into the Christian ministry after her stint in the military.
She has Psalms 13:3 tattooed around her right arm. The entire verse. It seems appropriate, considering her line of work.
"Look on me and answer, O Lord my God," it reads. "Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death."