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AL FAW PALACE, BAGHDAD - His voice is as flat and unemotional as one might hope to hear from someone trained to disarm and dispose of bombs.

Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Justin Hamaker, 31, is an explosive ordnance disposal team leader with EOD Mobile Unit 8, out of U.S. Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy. He is among 20 sailors from the unit completing their fifth month of a six-month assignment in support of the Army’s 79th Ordnance Battalion.

Hamaker’s three-man team is on call 12 hours a day in and around Baghdad. Typically, the calls come from soldiers on foot patrol who find weapon caches or from convoys stopped near what they believe is a roadside bomb.

The military calls them IEDs, improvised explosive devices, and they remain the deadliest weapon of the Iraqi insurgency. Last month IEDs killed 74 U.S. servicemembers, the highest monthly toll since these makeshift bombs first began to appear along Iraqi roadways in July 2003, four months after the U.S. invasion.

Since September 2006, when Hamaker arrived in Iraq, IEDs have killed almost 200 Americans, most of them soldiers and Marines. But nine in the last year were sailors, four of them EOD technicians.

Hamaker’s 20-man unit hasn’t suffered casualties but they have had close calls, he explained.

“Had IEDs go off on vehicles in our convoys,” he said. “Had RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] shot at us. Take small-arms fire pretty regularly.”

Among the sailors killed by IEDs before Hamaker arrived in Iraq was a friend he trained with in Navy dive school.

The greatest threat to EOD teams, to Army engineers and to airmen working on bomb disposal in Iraq is not handling unexploded bombs or weapon caches.

“The most dangerous part is just getting to wherever we’re going,” Hamaker said.

That means, of course, that any U.S. servicemember traveling the roads of Iraq, including many of the 21,500 to arrive here under President Bush’s new surge order, are exposed to what most worries even EOD technicians.

EOD teams here, said Hamaker, support specific companies of soldiers. They also work to clear convoy routes. Hamaker’s unit has “a huge chunk of ground” to cover, from Taji, 20 miles north of Baghdad, down to Mahmudiyah, south of the city.

Navy units received some extra predeployment training to integrate their skills in a ground combat environment focusing on unexploded ordnance, booby traps and IEDs. But Hamaker describes Navy EOD training as the best.

When a weapons cache is located, an EOD team arrives with their vehicle, a hardened EOD platform, and special equipment including a robot. The robot, about the size of a child’s wagon, moves on miniature tanklike tracks. Its remotely operated camera inspects the weapons cache or bomb and the surrounding area.

“If it’s just a piece of ordnance,” said Hamaker, “we will transport it to a safe area and dispose of it. If it can’t be safely transported, using a robot we will maneuver it somewhere where we can blow it up.”

Caches found so far have ranged from a few rocket-propelled grenades to a 2,000-piece stockpile of hand grenades through 155 mm projectiles. About half of all caches found contain IEDs “in some state of production,” said Hamaker. IEDs typically employ 57 mm anti-aircraft shells or a 155 mm projectile.

“We’ve run into some with small Russian bombs like 100 kilos,” he said. “For the most part, we can ID everything, just by sight. When you first get into country you’re not real sure, but after a week or so you say, ‘OK, I know what that is.’”

In Iraq, insurgents have no trouble finding bombs to make IEDs.

“You can walk around in some of the outlying fields of Baghdad and within 10 minutes stumble across some form of UXO out there,” said Hamaker, using the military acronym for unexploded ordnance.

When called to a bomb or weapons site, Hamaker’s team will clear the area of local residents and prepare to deploy a robot to “interrogate anything on scene.” But one immediate concern is “secondary” devices to attack EOD response teams.

“The enemy is watching us do our job so that, just like the IRA [Irish Republican Army] or anybody else who has had to deal with EOD and first responders, now they are looking to get us,” Hamaker said.

To counter that threat, “we just change the way we do business. We’re always changing and share that [advice] with the rest of the folks out here. ... If you’ve been somewhere before, do something different this time.”

Hamaker’s team so far has cleared more than 30 IEDs in and around Baghdad. In a few cases, they have returned to the same stretch of road.

The job requires a certain type of personality, Hamaker said.

“You have to be an aggressive person; we’re all Type A,” he said. “But you have to know when to be aggressive and when to stop, stand back and observe. You cannot get sucked into just focusing on that shiny object down range [instead of] what’s around you, and being able to control it.”

For all the dangers, Hamaker said his time in Iraq “has been a great experience. I enjoy defeating IEDs. I like the challenge. And since we haven’t suffered any casualties, we haven’t had to deal with that side of it.”

What are the rewards?

“The rewards are everybody else is safe. At the end of the day your team’s safe, the guys you support are safe, local nationals are safe,” he said.

Asked if the IED threat here ever will be eliminated, Hamaker hesitated before answering. He noted that roadside bombs no longer are used by the IRA in Northern Ireland.

“That’s really the only example,” he said. The threat went away when both sides “were able to meet in the middle” and settle their differences.

To comment, write Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA 20120-1111, e-mail milupdate@aol.com or visit www.militaryupdate.com.


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