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U.S. Military Short on Bomb Teams in Iraq

April 7, 2006

BALAD RUZ, Iraq (AP) _ Fingertips fiddling with a joystick, boyish face glued to a screen, Kyle Churchill could have been a kid deep into a video game. But this was a dangerous business, in a deadly place, and the U.S. Army was depending on him.

A hundred yards away, at the end of a fiber-optic tether, Churchill’s robot was examining a roadside bomb, sending video close-ups back to his armored Humvee. With the robot’s ``hand″ poised, and Churchill at the control console’s dials, he would soon begin the delicate job of disabling the device.

The 23-year-old explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) specialist had been in Iraq only a few weeks, but he was already an indispensable U.S. team member _ an Air Force ``blaster″ on the Army front lines, a bomb-disposal expert in a country with plenty of bombs and too few experts.

Attacks by Iraqi insurgents using improvised explosive devices, IEDs, almost doubled last year, to 29 a day, leading President Bush last month to describe the remotely detonated bombs _ buried on roadsides, disguised as rocks, hidden in debris _ as ``the principal threat to our troops.″

But as the threat has escalated, the number of specialists dealing with it hasn’t kept up.

The Army doesn’t publicize such numbers, citing security concerns, but soldiers everywhere tell stories of ``waiting for EOD,″ sitting exposed on Iraqi roads while overstretched teams scramble from place to place to disarm unexploded devices, either at a distance with robots, or by hand, dangerously close up, in more difficult cases.

``We had to wait 24 hours at one IED site for EOD to show up,″ Sgt. Robert Lewis of the Georgia National Guard’s 48th Infantry Brigade told a reporter visiting his base in insurgent-filled western Iraq.

The Pentagon is working to close the gap.

``It’s been recognized that we need more EOD personnel, and they are inbound to Iraq,″ Lt. Col. Bill Adamson, operations chief for a Defense Department anti-roadside-bomb task force, said in a Pentagon interview.

Both short-term and longer-term help is planned.

The Army last year made bomb disposal its No. 1 recruiting priority, doubling the bonus, to $40,000, paid to a recruit signing up for ``blaster″ training.

But basic bomb disposal training takes at least six months, and the need is immediate, particularly for more experienced, higher-skilled specialists. To help fill the gap, Air Force and Navy disposal teams are being flown in to back up Army ground operations.

From Balad Air Base, a huge installation the Army calls Anaconda, Air Force Capt. Peter Weld’s 34-member bomb disposal unit covers a large chunk of central Iraq, including five outlying bases where 20 of his airmen are assigned. Most arrived for four-month tours in late January, from Air Force bases across the United States.

Weld estimates about 100 Air Force ``blasters″ are in Iraq. ``We do have more to offer, and I think we’re sending more,″ he said. ``But it’s a contentious thing. People don’t want to leave their families.″

Senior Airman Churchill’s family in Red Bank, S.C., may be among the more understanding.

His stepfather was an Army bomb disposal man in the 1991 Gulf War, and Churchill met his wife, Amber, at bomb disposal school. She has since left the Air Force to rear their 7-month-old girl, but ``she understands enough to get nervous,″ Churchill said.

Why was he drawn to EOD work? He smiled. ``I get paid to blow stuff up,″ he said. ``It’s a good time, and a tight team.″

His tight, two-man team is led by Tech. Sgt. Jake Smith, 34, of Manassas, Va., with whom Churchill works at northern California’s Beale Air Force Base, where he said they do mostly civilian ``bomb squad type work.″

On this day in Iraq they confronted a 155mm artillery shell buried beside a road running through grape and cotton country two miles northwest of Balad Air Base. For some reason it had not been detonated as a 9th Cavalry Regiment motorized patrol approached, spotted it and called for bomb disposal.

As Smith and Churchill went to work, the 9th Cavalry’s Staff Sgt. Brandon Fitzgerald watched in admiration. ``These guys are really on their stuff,″ he said.

Doing their ``stuff″ took about 65 minutes. After sending their Talon robot to the roadside bomb, Churchill looked it over carefully from every angle, using multiple cameras, and then, using the robot’s gripper, detached the detonator from the explosives. The airmen wouldn’t describe that precise procedure, for security reasons.

``Airman Churchill was actually able to manipulate the arm to do what I would have done,″ Smith said. But Smith would have done it by hand, dangerously close up, wearing a hot, heavy armored suit.

The Talon then rolled back up the road and put the detonator down. Smith approached, lay flat on his stomach and closely inspected the device to ensure it didn’t have a dangerous blasting cap. He stashed it in a plastic bag, for fingerprint or other forensic value.

Returning to the artillery shell, he moved it farther from the road, rigged it with plastic explosive and then, at 12:32 p.m., two hours after they got the first call, bellowed the traditional alert, ``Fire in the hole!″, and detonated the would-be bomb in a thunderous blast.

It isn’t always so smooth. Days earlier, another Talon robot piloted by Churchill rolled over a pressure-plate detonator beside two 155mm shells. It was wrecked in the explosion. ``Sometimes the other guy wins,″ Weld said.

Sometimes, too, the loss is of more than plastic and metal.

At least 14 bomb disposal specialists have died in Iraq, the latest on March 29, when Tech. Sgt. Walter M. Moss, 37, of Houston was killed in an explosion while working to disarm an explosive in the Baghdad area. He was the first Air Force bomb disposal fatality in this new kind of conflict in Iraq, the roadside war.

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