Mideast edition, Sunday, June 01, 2008

His hearing isn’t as keen as it once was, and arthritis in his lower back is chronic.

He’s not an old man, just a 38-year-old U.S. Marine who tussled with death and won.

Marine Corps Master Sgt. Michael Burghardt of Fountain Valley, Calif., says it took him a long time to recover emotionally from surviving a roadside bomb in Iraq in September 2005. An explosives ordnance disposal expert, Burghardt was 12 inches from the blast.

Instead of counting his blessings that the shrapnel studded flat against his body instead of tearing through it, Burghardt was wracked by guilt.

The attention generated by the widely circulated photo of him flipping off the triggerman didn’t help.

Getting recognition "that I survived when I should have been dead made me feel guilty because I had lost … fellow EOD technicians who … were my friends," he said. Time and counseling helped him realize "I was still here to tell their story."

Burghardt, the previous EOD chief at Camp Fuji, Japan, until his reassignment in April, can’t imagine doing anything else, despite three tours in Iraq and the obvious job hazards.

It gives him the opportunity to serve his country, save the lives of others and play the most adrenaline-packed chess game of his life, he said.

"You’re doing your moves, the bad guy’s doing his moves, and nothing is ever the same," he said. "For people who love a challenge, this is a perfect job."

The junior EOD Marines keep him motivated, he said. "If I leave, who are they going to learn from?" he said.

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

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