This spring has been a season of accolades and heartache for one of the Air Force’s most demanding and dangerous career fields.
Explosive ordnance disposal recently was named the service’s 2009 team of the year, an honor bestowed by the independent, nonprofit Air Force Association, on recommendation from the Air Force’s most senior enlisted leaders.
"The Air Force Association works together with us on this. They believe it’s important that they recognize some of the enlisted airmen," said Senior Master Sgt. Sean Cobb, Office of the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force public affairs adviser.
Rising to the top, Air Force EOD last year "had a pretty big wartime mission," Cobb said. "They’re saving lives."
EOD airmen in Iraq and Afghanistan cleared 1,915 roadside bombs in 2008 — the most of any service, according to Air Force officials.
On average, 280 EOD airmen are deployed at any one time — about a third of the career field, the Air Force said.
This was the first time EOD was named Air Force team of the year, officials said.
As part of the recognition, five of EOD’s most accomplished airmen were singled out:
- Senior Master Sgt. Gus Hamilton III, a civil engineer with five Bronze Stars, assigned to the 835th Civil Engineers Squadron at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. He’s managed 840 combat missions responsible for destroying 564 roadside bombs.
- Tech. Sgt. Heath Tempel of Eielson Air Force Base’s 354th Civil Engineer Squadron in Alaska. Tempel has two Bronze Stars and is credited with neutralizing a roadside bomb and recovering a pinned-down teammate in a complex attack.
- Staff Sgt. Phillip Dyer of the 325th Civil Engineer Squadron, Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., logged 29 combat missions and trained 300 Army personnel on roadside bombs.
- Senior Airman Cooper Gibson, 4th Civil Engineer Squadron, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., cleared bombs from 3,500 miles of roadway and collected forensic evidence in 46 bomb incidents.
- Senior Airman Jasmine Nakayama, 75th Air Base Wing, Hill Air Force Base, Utah, carried out 66 combat missions in Iraq and earned the Army Commendation Medal.
The Air Force flew the five to Washington earlier this month, regaling them with an AFA awards ceremony, a social with the Air Force command chief master sergeant and a city tour, among other events.
But, by sad coincidence, their time in the nation’s capital overlapped with the return stateside of the remains of Tech. Sgt. Phillip A. Myers, a 48th Civil Engineer Squadron EOD technician from RAF Lakenheath in England. Myers, 30, was killed April 4 by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.
The return of Myers’ flag-draped casket at Dover Air Force Base, Del., was the first the Pentagon allowed the media to cover after lifting an 18-year ban on the practice.
The Air Force Association award didn’t garner the same national attention, but within the tight-knit EOD community "it is a huge deal … a huge morale booster," said Chief Master Sgt. Robert Hodges, the Air Force’s EOD career field manager.
With more troops headed to Afghanistan, more EOD airmen will deploy there, Hodges said. While roadside bomb incidents in Iraq are down, troops have started training Iraqi nationals to take over bomb-disposal duties, he said.
The Air Force has made recent strides to improve numbers of people going into the field, Hodges said. EOD airmen now receive a monthly special duty assignment pay, which starts at $150 for senior airman and tops out at $375 for technical sergeants and above. The extra pay was approved last fall, bringing the Air Force in line with the Army and Navy, which already had similar incentive programs in place.