Missiles await demolition.

Missiles await demolition. (Jim Schulz / S&S)

Missiles await demolition.

Missiles await demolition. (Jim Schulz / S&S)

Soldiers look over the pile of Iraqi artillery shells, bombs and missiles being set up for demolition.

Soldiers look over the pile of Iraqi artillery shells, bombs and missiles being set up for demolition. (Jim Schulz / S&S)

Seventy tons of Iraqi ordnance explode.

Seventy tons of Iraqi ordnance explode. (Jim Schulz / S&S)

The detonation of 70 tons of Iraqi ordnance produces this mushroom-shaped cloud.

The detonation of 70 tons of Iraqi ordnance produces this mushroom-shaped cloud. (Jim Schulz / S&S)

FALLUJAH, Iraq — Civilian experts under a $300 million Army contract are working to destroy captured Iraqi ammunition — an effort that reduces enemy stockpiles and alleviates soldiers from hazardous demolition duty.

In September, the Army hired four civilian contractors to collect, store and begin destroying about 600,000 tons of Iraqi ammunition, said Col. Paul Plemmons, 50, of Riverside, Calif.

The Iraqi military stockpile is roughly one-third the size of the U.S. military’s 1.8 million tons of stored ammunition, said Plemmons, the Army’s senior ordnance officer in Iraq.

“In a country this size, that’s mass weapons of destruction,” Plemmons said, playing on the phrase “weapons of mass destruction.”

“There is a lot of ammo in this country.”

Captured ammunition is stored at six locations around Iraq. Each site is near a major Army division, but away from the local population, Plemmons said.

Outside Fallujah, a team of experts from EOD Technology Inc., a Knoxville, Tenn.-based company, work from a camp called “the Rock.”

Also under contract for disposal are Florida-based USA Environmental Inc. and New Jersey-based Tetra Tech FW Inc. Parsons Corp., based in Pasadena, Calif., provides logistical support.

Last week, EODT invited Stars and Stripes to watch the demolition of 73 tons of munitions. They stacked a large shot; 7,700-pound bombs, topped with 155 mm white phosphorus shells, Mk 83 dumb bombs, 100 mm high-explosive anti-tank rounds, and 57 mm high-explosive projectiles.

The quiet professionals, most of them sporting beards, tattoos and baseball caps, cut into plastic explosives and ran wires into the massive pile of bombs and shells.

“Fire in the hole,” a voice crackled over the walkie-talkie, signaling a 10-minute warning.

The crews scrambled to a fleet of mud-caked GMC Sierra pickup trucks and hightailed their way out of the blast area. They parked more than two miles away.

Like teenage boys, they eagerly awaited the fireworks. They talked about previous explosions, to include one blast of more than 120 tons, which had really packed a punch.

“One minute,” the voice over the radio said, as the chatter died down. An eerie silence fell over the afternoon desert.

Without a sound, dust and debris shot skyward. Flares of white phosphorus blasted from a mushroom cloud. The visible shock wave rippled across the sky.

Then, Ka-boom!

Several seconds after the detonation, sound caught up with the awesome visuals. A thud whacked through the chests of each spectator. While sounds of explosions are not unusual these days in Iraq — with all the mortars, rockets, IEDs and car bombs — hearing more than 140,000 pounds of ammunition detonate at once is an exception.

“Well, we rocked some windows in Fallujah with that one,” said Mitch Ray, a paramedic assigned to the team.

The crew members, each with prior military service, are a tight bunch who take care of each other on the job, said manager Henry Minkce, 36, of Chattanooga, Tenn. Each is an expert with ammunition and explosives.

“They know how to handle it and they know how to destroy it,” Minkce said.

The team works six days each week. On the seventh day, they sweep the range of unexploded bits and clean up their gear. Each day, “the Rock” takes in about 200 tons of captured ordnance. To meet its quota, EODT destroys roughly 100 tons per day, Minkce said.

“We’re exceeding on the destruction part and meeting the reception goal,” Minkce said.

Safety officer James McIntosh, a former Navy explosives expert from Punxsutawney, Pa., said his five months in Somalia working with ordnance pales in comparison to the amount of Iraqi ammunition. While huge blasts can dispose of tons of ammunition at a time, it’s more efficient to blow weapons caches where they are found, McIntosh said. It’s also safer because fewer trucks are on the road.

That “cuts down on the number of transport convoys, which, as you know, decreases the exposure to potential IEDs [improvised explosive devices],” McIntosh said.

Like handling explosives, traveling through Iraq also can be deadly.

On Nov. 4, two EODT team members were killed in Fallujah by a roadside bomb as they passed by in their truck. Roy Buckmaster, 47, and David Dyess, 53, died in the attack. A third team member, Frank Johnson, 51, was wounded.

“Our convoys now avoid Fallujah,” Minkce said.

The more ammunition they locate and destroy, the less chance the enemy has to use the ammunition against U.S. soldiers. That’s an idea the EODT team often thinks about, lessening the enemy’s available stockpiles. But controlling the discovered ammunition is also about caring for the civilian population, especially the Iraqi children, said Minkce, whose son, Jacob, just turned 3.

“I can’t imagine my son playing around cluster bombs,” Minkce said.

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