Bomb squad back from Iraq

After seven moths of living in a palace in a war zone, Whidbey Island is tame for at least one group of sailors.

No one is firing rocket or grenades at them. They aren’t evaluating and destroying bombs. Walking around at work doesn’t require body armor, weapons and constant concentration.

‘Hoaxes’ always handled carefully

After years of war, artillery shells litter Iraq. Instead of using artillery shells as ammunition for heavy caliber guns, McGuckin said insurgents modify these shells to make them lethal as roadside bombs. Insurgents also plant improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, along roads or anywhere people may be. IEDs can be anything from a trash can to a beverage can filled with explosives and shrapnel, McGuckin said. Any container with a wire coming from it can be an explosive, he said. Any item that could be detonated was suspect. “Even a dog,” he said.

When IEDs were found, an EOD team was called in to handle the situation. Not every explosive was the actual target. Sometimes a device was a hoax, meant to distract team members from real IEDs placed nearby. As a team was evaluating the object, other bombs might be detonated by remote control. Or insurgents would fire missiles, launch grenades or lob mortars.

Team returns

home intact

While Det 5 was in Iraq, six people from other EOD teams were killed. No one from Det 5 was injured severely. But for Petty Officer 1st Class Brent Barto, their Humvee hitting a roadside bomb was the worst time in Iraq.

McGuckin and Barto, along with Petty Officer 1st Class Heath Nettleton and Petty Officer 2nd Class Chad Munroe, were heading to a call when a roadside bomb detonated under their Humvee.

“I thought I was dead,” McGuckin said.

Barto, who was the Humvee’s gunner, thought McGuckin’s legs had been blown off. Everyone had ear trauma from the detonation and the Humvee’s windshield was broken from people’s helmets smashing into it.

McGuckin said he was incoherent for a few seconds. A team member slapped him to bring him back to the fight. Everyone got busy, McGuckin said, as insurgents broke through the team’s perimeter.

After the pace settled, McGuckin was medevaced to Baghdad for a CAT scan and MRI to be sure nothing had been jarred loose. He was back with the team as fast as he could get to them.

Luckily, no one suffered more than cuts, scratches and being shaken and stirred. Humvees have extra metal plates to protect from such road hazards. Team members are safety harnessed to the vehicle so they can’t be blasted off.

Data gathering

spares lives

In spite of hazards and being on constant alert, McGuckin said his team is proud of their accomplishments in Iraq. Det 5 patrolled 27,000 kilometers, went on 148 missions, endured rats in their living quarters and destroyed 33,000 pounds of assorted explosives. Some was destroyed as they cleared roads of bombs and IEDs. More was destroyed after explosives were captured during raids.

Because of dangers from hoaxes, snipers and other attacks, EOD team members adapted their training to fit varied situations. McGuckin said everything they learned, the team passed on and this information is being incorporated into EOD training worldwide.

“It’s good to know what we learned can save someone’s life,” McGuckin said.

The team has been nominated for Bronze Stars as well as campaign medals and combat action ribbons. The four who drove over a bomb in the Humvee have been nominated for Purple Hearts.

For them, island life could be called “boring.”

Detachment 5, an eight-man group from Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 11, recently returned to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station after 210 days in Iraq.

Lt. Mark McGuckin, officer in charge of Det 5, said he enjoyed each stress-filled day.

“It was exciting, and a great opportunity, to do our job,” he said. “We were alert all the time.” Most people would “enjoy” an exciting whitewater rafting vacation — not being targeted by snipers while working on delicate tasks of defusing explosives.

But EOD trained sailors thrive on challenges and danger.

In addition to working with materials that could blow up at any moment, team members train to dive, parachute and rappel to a site.

Because of booby-trap dangers, McGuckin said the team only did straight-surface missions. In other words, they drove or helicoptered to a site, evaluated the situation and walked in carefully.

Assault force protects team

EOD teams with Det 5 never traveled alone. A Polish air assault unit, part of the multi-national defense force, was always with them as was a doctor and medics. The Poles also acted as translators between EOD and other Eastern European military forces in Iraq.

EOD team members and their Polish security forces trained, traveled and lived together.

Their barracks was one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces which stood on an embankment near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, about a mile from the ruins of Babylon. While the palace had been ransacked, McGuckin said mosaic tiles and intricate carvings hinted at the palace’s glory days.

But no one was too in awe of their surroundings. In fact, they practiced rappelling from the ramparts of the palace.

Sundays, when they weren’t called out, EOD and the Poles played volleyball.

“We became a band of brothers,” McGuckin said. Since before leaving Iraq, Web sites have been established to maintain contact with everyone.

Team went

in prepared

The team was on the ground for all its missions but traveled to Iraq equipped for any mission. Their 58,000 pounds of gear included a fast Zodiac boat and a dive chamber — just in case.

Phone calls came every day — sometimes two or times times. For McGuckin, the most tense moment was their first call which came only 90 minutes after they took over from another team. McGuckin said the first night mission was also tense. They had trained wearing night-vision goggles, but using the goggles during a combat mission wasn’t the same as training. Even after using night-vision goggles became routine, night missions were always different from day missions.

McGuckin recalls driving through towns at night, hearing whistles as Iraqis signaled troops were in the area. Then, crouching figures moved across roofs. No one ever knew if Iraqis were simply watching the team or getting ready to call in a mortar attack, throw grenades or launch missiles.

“We didn’t stay in one position long,” McGuckin said.


Det. 5 members

Lt. Mark McGuckin

Chief Petty Officer Johnny Faught

Petty Officer 1st Class Heath Nettleton

Petty Officer 1st Class Matthew Harrison

Petty Officer 1st Class Brent Barto

Petty Officer 2nd Class Chad Munroe

Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric Thompson

Petty Officer 3rd Class Benjamin Grosek

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