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Petty Officer 2nd Class Mark Hickling gives the OK sign after completing a dive at a Kuwaiti port on the Persian Gulf Sunday prior to the arrival of a U.S. ship. Hickling is a reservist with the Navy’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal Detachment-Kuwait, which falls under Naval Coastal Warfare Squadron 354.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Mark Hickling gives the OK sign after completing a dive at a Kuwaiti port on the Persian Gulf Sunday prior to the arrival of a U.S. ship. Hickling is a reservist with the Navy’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal Detachment-Kuwait, which falls under Naval Coastal Warfare Squadron 354. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)
Petty Officer 2nd Class Mark Hickling gives the OK sign after completing a dive at a Kuwaiti port on the Persian Gulf Sunday prior to the arrival of a U.S. ship. Hickling is a reservist with the Navy’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal Detachment-Kuwait, which falls under Naval Coastal Warfare Squadron 354.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Mark Hickling gives the OK sign after completing a dive at a Kuwaiti port on the Persian Gulf Sunday prior to the arrival of a U.S. ship. Hickling is a reservist with the Navy’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal Detachment-Kuwait, which falls under Naval Coastal Warfare Squadron 354. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)
Senior Chief Petty Officer Sean T. McLaren, left, keeps an eye of Petty Officer 2nd Class Mark Hickling during a diving mission in a Kuwaiti port on Sunday morning.
Senior Chief Petty Officer Sean T. McLaren, left, keeps an eye of Petty Officer 2nd Class Mark Hickling during a diving mission in a Kuwaiti port on Sunday morning. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)
Petty Officer 1st Class Bryen Williams, left, and Chief Petty Officer Kelly Davis suit a soldier up in a bomb suit designed to protect from shrapnel and blast.
Petty Officer 1st Class Bryen Williams, left, and Chief Petty Officer Kelly Davis suit a soldier up in a bomb suit designed to protect from shrapnel and blast. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)
Chief Petty Officer Jeffrey Cooney steers a small boat during training with Naval Coastal Warfare Squadron 354 in a Kuwaiti port on the Persian Gulf Sunday morning.
Chief Petty Officer Jeffrey Cooney steers a small boat during training with Naval Coastal Warfare Squadron 354 in a Kuwaiti port on the Persian Gulf Sunday morning. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

They have a good time together. On Saturday evenings, there are barbecues, usually with marinated fish caught from the salty Persian Gulf. They joke and laugh often, and sometimes play pranks on each other. Play hard, work hard.

When the next job could be the last, levity keeps things sane.

Reservists with the Navy’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal Detachment-Kuwait are keeping plenty busy on land and in water. Deployed to an undisclosed location near Camp Patriot in Kuwait, the reservists respond to any potential bomb threats on the ground or at sea in their operating area. Another job is disposing of old unexploded ordnance left over from previous wars such as Desert Storm.

As trained Navy EOD divers, they also search for underwater bombs in two Kuwaiti ports on the Persian Gulf, ensuring the pier and the harbor are safe for entering U.S. ships carrying war supplies.

They’re looking for anything from magnetic mines to a bag of explosives tied to a shaft, said Senior Chief Petty Officer Sean McLaren, the detachment’s officer in charge.

“If there’s something there that wasn’t before, we wave away the U.S. asset coming into port,” he said.

Since April, the detachment has completed more than 150 dives and spent more than 3,000 minutes under water. Bomb calls to date number about 20, although none so far has turned out to be the real thing. The most bizarre call was to check out a floating sheep carcass in the gulf.

“They’ve been known to use carcasses on [roads] in Iraq. They stuff them with explosives,” said Chief Petty Officer Kelly Davis, detachment team leader.

Davis, 34, and Petty Officer 1st Class Bryen Williams, 31, take the lead on bomb calls, while the other four divers, who have completed a portion of EOD school, assist with that mission.

The reservists share a huge tent near the beach. With about half the team over 40, physical fitness is an important staple of the daily routine. They lift weights, run and swim, mostly in a pool, to stay sharp in the water.

“You have no choice but to be in shape, because if you can’t keep up with the job, you’re going to get weeded out,” said Chief Petty Officer Jeffrey S. Cooney, 41, a master plumber from Virginia Beach, Va.

Dives can be at any time of day, depending on ship schedules. Night dives are just as they sound, said Petty Officer 2nd Class Mark Hickling: “Dark and spooky.” One of the biggest risks while diving under tugboats is an oblivious boat operator turning on the engine.

Hickling is a restaurant manager in Richmond, Va. At 45, he’s the oldest in the group.

“I joined late in life to erase some regret … that I hadn’t done it sooner,” he said. After four years with a special warfare unit, he switched to Navy EOD diving.

“I celebrated my 43rd birthday at dive school,” he said. “I was old enough to be dad to most of the guys there.”

What Chief Petty Officer Gary Kvammen remembers most about dive school was push-ups in the surf, holding one’s breath and blowing bubbles under the water right after a hard run.

The reservists said they’re like brothers.

“It’s like being in the fire department,” Davis said. Williams hypothesizes that they bond so well because the job “attracts a certain kind of person, all crazy.”

“I like the work, I love the people … and I get to blow stuff up.”

They find a way to deal with the risks — a reality they can’t escape even in Kuwait. Four EOD brothers, as Davis called them, have died in Iraq since the detachment arrived from Fort Story, Va., last spring.

“They’ve all come through this detachment on their way to Iraq,” he said. “When they come through here we entertain them, we barbecue with them, we take them fishing.

“We didn’t have a lot of lessons that we have now from Iraq,” Davis said. “Those lessons, even though they’re written in blood, we have them now and we’re learning. It’s a vicious circle … we’ve got to stay on top of them.”

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