EOD: ‘It’s almost like playing Russian roulette’
Misawa’s bomb experts named best in Air Force
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — The news hits like a ton of bricks to the gut: Another explosive ordnance disposal specialist killed or maimed in Iraq by a homemade bomb.
Master Sgt. Eddy Dominguez knows about the latest casualty.
“We just lost another Marine EOD yesterday, just like that,” he said Thursday. “I think we’ve got two Air Force EODs in Wilford Hall (a military hospital in Texas) … one lost his left arm because of a tertiary device.”
It gets the 22-year EOD career man to thinking: “How did they get themselves in that situation?” Was it a mistake or an oversight? Or are the bad guys getting smarter?
“It’s almost like playing Russian roulette,” he said. “It might be your turn next.”
Dominguez supervises Misawa Air Base’s EOD flight, a 16-member unit that recently was named best in the Air Force for 2005. The honor caps a busy year for Misawa’s bomb experts, one that began with Dominguez and five of his airmen deploying to Iraq from December to June.
“It’s a compilation of everything that the shop does throughout the year,” Dominguez said of the Senior Master Sgt. Gerald J. Stryzak Award, named for an EOD bomb technician killed with two others in a C-141 aircraft crash in 1980.
The experiences and lessons learned in Iraq, however, are shaping how the EOD airmen approach their jobs and training in northern Japan’s peace and quiet.
‘You know you’re doing something dangerous’
After a frenetic pace chasing down improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, while trying to stay a step ahead of insurgents, the slowdown for some is welcome. Others long for the front lines.
“I had a blast the whole time we were there,” said Senior Airman Patrick McCrone, a 21-year-old EOD journeyman from Los Altos, Calif. “Almost every day we were going on calls. … I’d like to go back.”
The job description isn’t for the faint of the heart. Misawa’s EOD specialists spent most of their downrange days disarming IEDs, the second leading cause of death among U.S. troops in Iraq.
“Most people see an IED, they run away,” McCrone said. “Well, they send us to the IED, so you know you’re doing something dangerous.”
The men say they saw death almost daily but didn’t think much about dying.
“Aw, you just put that aside and push on with your job, pretty much,” said Adam Popp, a 26-year staff sergeant from Lanesville, Ind.
“If you’re real nervous,” McCrone said, “if you’re scared about dying, then you’re going to make a mistake.”
Misawa’s EOD team lived at Baghdad International Airport: Dominguez, McCrone, Popp, Tech. Sgt. John Lewis, Senior Airman Michael LaFranca and Tech Sgt. Doug Jones. They and Air Force EOD specialists from Barksdale Air Force Base, La., worked for the Army to keep supply routes open in a 200-square-mile area west of Baghdad.
The calls were almost nonstop, heedless of hour. They included unexploded ordnance and post-blast assessments and mortar and rocket hits to their home base at the airport.
“I felt like I was going to a drive-thru and ordering a hamburger, fries and shake — ‘I’ll take three IEDs, a post blast and a (weapons) cache, please,’” Dominguez said. “After you’re done with that, you just drive up back through and get yourself another few calls.”
In one post-blast investigation, Jones and Dominguez responded to a Humvee that ran over an IED that exploded.
“The driver was lost instantly. The passenger behind him lost his feet. He also died because he bled to death,” Dominguez said.
McCrone recalls a fiery OH-58 Kiowa helicopter crash. He and his partner — EOD techs work in pairs — cut away and cleared seven rockets so Army soldiers could remove the two pilots’ remains.
The IEDs were the trickiest of calls — and potentially the deadliest. Misawa’s EOD techs found bombs hidden in garbage, animal carcasses, an inner tube, a burlap sack, buried in dirt, concealed by concrete slabs. An Army security team accompanied them on all calls, surrounding their Humvees sometimes with Bradley tanks while they set up and operated their radio-controlled robot to disarm homemade bombs from a safe distance. But the safe area — what was deemed out of the danger zone — wasn’t always safe.
Learning lessons the hard way
Dominguez lost an Army buddy, an EOD staff sergeant whom he met in Iraq. The two shared an interest in digital photography.
“Initially, the call was a hoax device,” Dominguez said, “meaning a mark up (bomb) just to get you there and focus on that.”
About seven minutes after the staff sergeant arrived on the scene, a secondary device blew up next to him.
“Obviously, what we call the triggerman was keeping his eyes on him,” Dominguez said. “They already know who we are and what we do and they’re trying to get us. The triggerman, all he did was push the button. It was a remote-controlled device, and it just killed him instantly.”
Dominguez had his fair share of close calls. But one in particular continues to haunt him.
An Army tank commander reported driving by a black bag on a bridge. He told Dominguez he didn’t see any wires around it.
“I dropped my guard,” he said. “I actually walked down there to take a look at it because he’s already been down there, his buddy’s been down there.
“When I got down there, there’s some wires coming out of the bag. About 5 feet away there’s a remote control device. All I could think is the triggerman’s out there trying to push the button and I’m just too close.”
Dominguez high-tailed it. The device didn’t go off. He went to church the next Sunday.
It would be the most important lesson of the deployment, if not his career: “Don’t let your guard down. Whatever they tell you, whatever information you gather, you still have to go in completely protected.”
Dominguez never repeated that mistake. He, McCrone and LaFranca teamed to disarm more than 50 IEDs during the deployment. This fall, Dominguez was awarded the Bronze Star for his efforts in Iraq.
“It’s part of doing my duty,” he said of earning the military’s fourth highest honor. “I went over there and did what I thought needed to be done. I wasn’t afraid of working.”
A slower pace
Back at Misawa, the EOD shop’s primary mission is to support the base’s military aircraft.
“Anything that interrupts flying involving ordnance, we take care of that,” Dominguez said.
The pace is a bit slower — “I think we’ve had 15 or 20 calls in the time that we’ve had 350 over there,” Popp said. But he’s not complaining.
“I could (use) 15 months off,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong. The experience was great. Some people are scared; they don’t like to be doing it. I was scared sometimes, but throw it at me.”