Soldier takes time at home to visit 3rd grade class

Enjoy these photos from the Facebook page of a hometown mother, Mrs. Maranda Howell Robinson, when her daughter Natalie’s class was visited Monday, April 30th, by Pfc. Wil Moore, of Liberty, North Carolina, a Battle Company soldier home on his two weeks of mid-deployment leave.

Wil Moore in Afghanistan Feb 2012

Wil Moore in Afghanistan Feb 2012

“Our friend Wil came to school today to talk to Natalie’s 3rd grade class. He is currently home on R&R from a year deployment in Afghanistan,” she wrote. “The class has sent him letters and care packages. He sent them letters, pictures, made them a video , brought some interesting things to look at, and talked to the class. They loved it!! Thank you for serving our country Wil!!!”

Mrs. Robinson said, “I have been keeping up with your website and feel honored that you included our story! I am a good friend and neighbor to Wil. I have been sending him care packages and thought it would be a great learning experience to include the 3rd grade class. So, I gathered pictures and information, and then spoke to the class about helping! They were so eager to help. We gathered 9 large boxes to send him! Each child wrote a letter to him It was way more than I anticipated but we were so thankful to have so much support! Wil did a wonderful job educating the students about being in Afghanistan. The children loved his visit.”

Then she added a comment about our Battle Company project: “Thank you for what you do for the soldiers, their families and friends! In fact, Wil told the teachers today about your website so that they could follow FOB Sweeney!” [Thank you!]

Eagle Scout Project Sends 36 Care Packages to Soldiers

Packing soldier care packages

Packing soldier care packages

Finding things a young soldier deployed in the rural reaches of Afghanistan might enjoy eating or using, is a genuine challenge for any of the Battle Company Project volunteer partners. Not to mention the work of organizing, packing, preparing a customs form, and making a trip to the Post Office. Or the expense involved.

Think again if you were going to prepare care packages for 36 Battle Company soldiers! All at the same time! That’s a lot of work and expense!

One teenager in Tucson, Arizona, did just that as his Eagle Scout project. Two months after he came up with the idea, Sabastian Chamberlain, made the trip to the Post Office with two giant parcels headed for FOBs Sweeney and Wolverine. Inside the big boxes were individual packages for 34 soldiers at Sweeney plus one for PFC Alex Alvarado and another for the rest of the soldiers at Wolverine. Each package also contained a note from one of the Scouts written to a specific soldier.

PFC Alex Alvarado

PFC Alex Alvarado

Eagle Scout candidate Sabastian Chamberlain

Eagle Scout candidate Sabastian Chamberlain

“We are hoping to provide some of the needed day-to-day items that can assist the troops while being deployed as well provide a personalized message with each care package for the receiving soldier,” wrote Sabastian in an email to Dr. Jerry Montgomery, project coordinator, in early March.

“I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I belong to the Butterfield Ward, in the Tucson, West Stake (on the Northwest side of Tucson, Arizona). PFC Alvarado was baptized as a member of our church just prior to entering the military,” he said.

“I chose care packages as my Eagle project because it provided an opportunity to thank the troops for their sacrifice as well as providing a great avenue for others to share of their time in coordinating the project. So far i have been able to gather volunteer help of 35 people.”

Then in mid-March, he gathered all the Scouts and a few parents to assemble some of the items that had already been donated. “The items we have gathered so far are playing cards, hard candy, toothpaste/toothbrushes, mini first-aid kits, pens/notepads, Chapstick, sunscreen, mini-pretzel bags, magazines (National Geographic), he said. “Our total Scout troop size is 16 young men, ranging in age from 12-17.”

Eagle Scout candidate Sabastian Chamberlain

Eagle Scout candidate Sabastian Chamberlain

The soldiers, who had not yet been partnered with another local volunteer in the project, included:

SPC HINMAN, Daniel Jr.
SPC HUFF, Jarrod
PFC HUSTON, Samuel II
SGT JOHNSON Thomas
SPC KOCHEL, Jeremy
PFC KRUEGER, Brian
PV2 LITTLE, Lucas
SGT LOGUE, Robert Jr.
PV2 MARESH, Danny
PV2 MAYFIELD, Edgar
PV2 MEJIA, Erik
PFC MILLS, Joshua
SPC MUNDIGLER, Raymond
SPC MURR, Craig
SPC PARSLEY, Danny
SPC PEARSON, Jeffrey
PV2 PILLA. Justin
SPC PUGLISE. Christopher
SPC REDE, Jordan
CPL RISTAU, Michael
SPC ROGERS, Lance
SGT RONE, Dustin
PFC SHINNICK, Kevin
SPC STANGL, Jeffrey
PFC STEPHENSON, Jacob
SGT STINSON, Jordan
PFC STORY, Kevin
PV2 TESCHNER, Justin
SGT VALADEZ, Joshua
PV2 VOJTA, Dakota
SGT WHALEN, Michael Jr.
CPL WILKERSON, Troy
SPC WILLIAMS, Tavaras

Unlike the soldiers listed above, PFC Alvarado actually does have a partner, the Rev. Amy Furth, who is a chaplain at Harborview, the biggest emergency hospital in the Pacific Northwest and is a member of University Congregational UCC church. “Don’t worry about duplicating her efforts, ” Dr. Montgomery told him, “the soldiers like the extra supply of goodies and attention from folks at home!”

Sabastian’s dad, Jeril Chamberlain, send a note on Sunday, March 18th:

“Just wanted to give you a quick update on how Sabastian’s Eagle Project (the packing portion) went this weekend. We had more than 30 people show up to assist in packing the boxes, drawing pictures, and creating cards for the troops. We have also gone down to the post office to get the shipping information. Sabastian is now making arrangements for gathering the funds to ship the items. We plan to ship them out by the 31st of this month, so they hopefully arrive to the platoon by the 2nd week of April. He has Spring Break this week and it should be a great opportunity for him to gather the necessary funds and get everything wrapped up. We also have plenty of photos we took while assembling the packages. I will put a photo file together for you and send it out this week as well. Thank you again for this great opportunity.”

Then he added, “We have an extra box with some of the leftover items we were able to gather, is there a platoon leader we should address it to that could us them as extra PX supplies?” Lt. Travis Johnson, the FOB Wolverine platoon leader, and Sgt. First Class Eric Q. Jackson were added to the list.

SFC Eric Q Jackson and Lt Travis Johnson on patrol

SFC Eric Q Jackson and Lt Travis Johnson on patrol

Jeril, in a later note, said, “We have successfully raised the necessary funds for shipping. We found through the post office that it was more cost effective to ship the individual boxes in two large boxes.” The BIG boxes full of smaller boxes of care packages were shipped to First Sgt. Aron P. Alexander to ensure that every soldier got the package addressed to him.

After tough winter, JBLM soldiers optimistic about Afghan handoff

Once again on the TNT’s front page:

“Battle Company’s Sgt. Stephen Spangler is on his third tour fighting in this country in the past five years. But for the first time, he says he’s seeing Afghan soldiers ready to take control of the battlefield.”

Read the story and hear what these Battle Company soldiers have to say:

    Sgt. Stephen Spangler
    Staff Sgt. Antonio Barajas
    Spc. Kyle Poteat

Among the TNT’s quotes was this one:

“The News Tribune visited three small joint bases in the past month, and Afghan soldiers moved back and forth without restraint or checks. Lewis-McChord explosive ordnance soldiers said they demonstrate their trust to their Afghan counterparts by not wearing body armor whenever they visit them.

“We get some awkward looks sometimes, but they haven’t done anything negative,” said Spc. Kyle Poteat, 24, of the 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment. He also lives at Lewis-McChord back in the states.

He described the Afghan National Police with whom he most often partners as upbeat and ready to go out on missions with U.S. soldiers.”

C Troop featured on Tacoma’s “News Tribune” front page

JBLM soldiers not in Kandahar Province see sudden action, ‘own the night’

Please click here to see the story as it was published April 5, 2012, on the The News Tribune website

* * * * *

When you read Reporter ADAM ASHTON’s story, look for actions by our Battle Company soldiers:

    Sgt. Eric Q. Jackson
    Pfc. Uriel Velazquez
    Spc. Eric Pollack
    Pvt. Harry Tevis
    Pvt. Mitchell Dobry

* * * * *

Here’s a quote from the end of Ashton’s well-done story that sums up a lot about the daily life of these soldiers we support.:

“At 9:30 a.m., tired soldiers trickled into their barracks, 12 hours after they’d left the base on foot.

They stripped from their sweaty and sometimes bloody clothes and headed for the showers. Some ate, and junior soldiers talked about the night they shared in their first combat experience.

“This is what we signed up to do,” said Pvt. Mitchell Dobry, 20, who lives in the barracks at Lewis-McChord when not deployed.

Jackson, the platoon sergeant whose soldiers call him “Daddy,” messed with his guys.

“Red com 1. Everybody get your gear on. There’s an IED en route,” he said as his soldiers undressed in their tent.

They groaned. They’d moved on two all-night missions in the previous five days.

“April Fools’!” Jackson laughed.

Veterans savored the victory while keeping their minds on how the insurgents might respond to their overnight losses.

“This is going to be a long deployment,” said Lt. Joseph Fontana, 28, the troop’s executive officer. “This is a great victory for us.”

After the story was published in print and online, the newspaper invited readers to post comments. Sgt. First Class Jackson had a response to one comment worth repeating:

“I am SFC Jackson (aka DAD) the one mentioned in the story above and to all those who say well done, I say thank you. My soldiers will truly appreciate knowing that there are more than their families back home wanting them to be safe. To all those who have negative things to say, I say ‘You’re Welcome’. We do what we do not to kill people, not to bring death but to ensure peace, to help bring understanding. But like you all, there are people who do not like to hear the other side, [they] like to yell so that their voice is the only one heard. Those are the people who want to fight us and to kill us, those are the people there seems to be no reasoning with. So before you down talk my soldiers, walk a day in their boots and I promise you will have a significant emotional event, in the realization that these young men are courageous and stand for all the good America has to offer.”

The lonely walk – a real life ‘Hurt Locker’ episode!

Sometimes it’s easy to think that soldiers on patrol in Afghanistan are just out hiking. This story is a strong description of the dangers they actually face and the live-saving good Battle Company soldiers did when they found a cache of old Russian explosives during a February patrol. The description here of the Army bomb squad specialists at work is a real-life version of the movie, The Hurt Locker.

Story and photos by U.S. Army Sgt. Christopher McCullough

FORWARD OPERATING BASE LAGMAN, Afghanistan, February 2012 – The silence of a frigid February afternoon was broken by an ominous warning. “Fire in the hole, fire in the hole, fire in the hole,” the warning echoed across a sub-freezing landscape draped in ice and snow. Seconds later an explosive ordnance technician from 787th Ordnance Company, 3rd Ordnance Battalion, detonated several thermite grenades that destroyed over 500 pounds of homemade explosive.

The device (called an “HME” by soldiers) burned this afternoon could have been used to injure, maim, or kill Afghan civilians, International Security Assistance Force soldiers or their Afghan partners, but thanks in part to the soldiers of 787 EOD; this HME is cooked, literally.

As it happens, the HME that was destroyed this day was discovered during a raid by Battle Company soldiers on a suspected bomb making laboratory conducted the previous week.

Had it not been discovered, it could have been used to build an IED, in which case EOD would have to come out and blow the IED in place.

Who would come?

Who are these people that are willing to risk their lives neutralizing explosives that could just as easily kill them? To find out the answer, I linked up with 1st Lt. Dan Marvin and 1st Sgt. William Conard, both from 787 EOD, and learned a thing or two about those who walk “the lonely walk.”

On the surface, Conard and Marvin are straightforward, down to earth guys; the kind of men you would invite to your family barbecue. But underneath their sensible exteriors are a couple of the most courageous men in the U.S. Army. If there’s any doubt, consider how few people in the armed forces actually volunteer to walk up to a live IED, knowing full well it could be detonated at any time, and disarm it. But they do it!

“I did 10 years of warehouse-supply work, and at the end of the day I didn’t feel like I’d accomplished anything,” says Conard. “So I went to Egypt and worked with the EOD guys and did some of the stuff they did. I felt a sense of accomplishment when I finished it. ‘Hey I cleared this explosive hazard and potentially saved the lives of numerous people.’”

So a warehouseman in search of job satisfaction chose working with explosives over stocking shelves. Surely that doesn’t sound like a rational decision to some people.

“You’ve got to be a little bit irrational to do it as well,” laughed Conard.

Marvin’s explanation wasn’t much different. An enlisted infantryman for 9 years, Marvin was looking for the next big challenge in his Army career, so he chose to attend Officer Candidate School where he made the decision to go EOD.

“I wanted to do something that would make me feel like I was playing a significant role on the battlefield and taking care of the good guys, and EOD was it,” Marvin says. “That was my option; either that or be a maintenance officer and I didn’t want to do that,” he laughs.

So what is the job of an explosive ordnance technician anyway? Do they just blow up bombs and such, or is there something more to their job?

“We’re trained and specialized to handle that threat,” Conard says. “So we clear that threat and keep the roads clear for personnel and supplies moving up and down the route [which] keeps personnel from getting hit with those devices or trying to clear them themselves.”

Still, Marvin explains, that’s not the sum of their job.

“Our job is to protect,” he says. “Our job is not necessarily to blow up bombs. Our job is to protect personnel and property. That’s the only reason we go out there and do it.”

Becoming an Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician is no easy matter. The Explosive Ordnance Disposal course involves attending a 10-week pre-course held at Fort Lee, Va., followed by another 8 months of training at the Naval School Explosive Ordnance Disposal Detachment at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., but that’s only if you go straight through. The attrition rate for aspiring EOD techs is high; a lot of students are held back and have to repeat some of the schooling, even then, not everyone makes it.

The curriculum at EOD School is varied and intense. Students are schooled in ordnance recognition, bomb searches, how to disarm hundreds of types of conventional ordnance, such as grenades, mines, mortars and rockets, as well as other ordnance related courses. They are also instructed on how to collect forensic evidence such as fingerprints, DNA and samples of explosive material used in improvised explosive devices. Such data allows experts to determine how insurgent bomb makers are creating their IEDs, and where they are being manufactured so they can be tracked down and stopped from making their wares.

How they roll

Even with these super sleuths on the job, the bad guys are still able to get their bombs out onto the battlefield much of the time. That is when EOD technicians, like Marvin and Conard, really earn their paycheck.

“Once a call comes in for an IED, whoever my number one team is has 15 minutes to roll out the gate,” says Marvin. “So that means their truck is already loaded, they’ve done all their pre-combat checks and pre-combat inspections and they’re ready to roll.”

Once they are out the gate, Marvin and Conard’s soldiers could be out 30 minutes or 30 hours.

“In the past we could be out and back in a half hour,” says Conard. “We’d go out with the robotics, get all the evidence we could off it [and] we’d dispose of whatever ordnance or HME is present.”

But with increased regulations, Conard explained, technicians these days go out to the scene of an IED and have to call up to higher headquarters for air clearance; to ensure that there is no aircraft in the area that could be damaged by any ensuing explosion. That means they have to get the “okay” from their higher headquarters before they are able to go ahead with their procedures.

“It’s all dependent on outside effects,” Conard says. “So there’s no set time. It could be a quick half hour there and back [or] you could be sitting out there…waiting for clearance.”

Planning for every possible contingency

Even when the soldiers of 787 EOD successfully disarm and destroy an IED, that does not mean they head back to base right away. Depending on insurgent activity in the area, there may be multiple IEDs throughout a province or district. If another unit on patrol discovers an IED while EOD is already on a call, it could mean they might go from one job to another and then to another.

“I’ve been out for 24 hours just clearing IED after IED,” says Conard. “As soon as I get done with one, ‘hey, they got another one they found out here,’ and you move to that. And you move and move; all day long you’re out. There is no set time for us. It’s [a] 24 hour response. You could be called at a moment’s notice and you could be out for 5 to 10 days sometimes. You prepare for everything.”

That means an EOD team has to plan for every possible contingency. In order to do so each truck has multiple robots onboard, as well as an 80 pound bomb suit. They also have different kits that allow them to accomplish the various procedures that they need to do. Likewise, each team has a variety of different charges that they use to expose, disrupt or detonate an IED or ordnance.

“When you think about all the different ordnance that is out there in the world, we have procedures for about 98% of it,” Conard says. “So if it’s a rocket propelled grenade and we can’t blow it up, we have equipment that we could use that will shear the fuse off this way, shape charge the nose off that way.” The reason EODS is so long is because “every piece of ordnance out there is handled differently.”

Still, rendering an IED ineffective is as much an art as it is a science.

“An IED is made to detonate,” explained Conard, “but how it is made is up to the ingenuity of the bomber. He can make it anyway he wants. He can booby-trap it if he wants. There is no set book that says ‘this is how an IED works, this is how the guy’s going to manufacture it, and this is how you can take care of it.’ It’s random. The bomb maker can make it any way he pleases.”

“Dealing with conventional ordnance is simple,” Conard goes on to say. “We know how it works; we know how to take care of it. With an IED you have to think outside the box in how you approach it, and every time you approach one it’s different.”

Approach an IED. Just the thought of doing as much is enough to send shivers down even the bravest soldier’s spine, but sometimes that is just what the soldiers of 787 EOD have to do.

“If my team member can’t get the robot down there, or the robot breaks down, or it goes off a cliff into the water or something, I have to put that bomb suit on and go down there,” says Conard. “It’s what they call the ‘lonely walk.’ There’s no one else out there. It’s just you.”

The “lonely walk”

The Hollywood movie the “Hurt Locker” glamorized the walk, but I wanted to know, what is it really like?

“I get a little jittery sometimes, but you just have to go,” Conard explains. “Many times I’ve low-crawled up to something like that, looked over the berm and there was a 155 [mm artillery round] staring me in the face. You pucker up and then your training just takes over. You get in there, you do immediate action drills on it, you take care of it, and then when you’re done…you do it again.”

The scenario Conard describes was done in an 80 pound, oversized, Kevlar bomb suit with ballistic plates that is confining and, in summertime, very hot to wear.

“In the summertime, when it’s 120 degrees Fahrenheit, I’ll come out of [the suit] soaked from head to toe with my own sweat,” says Conard. “There’s no airflow in it. You have some airflow going through your mask to keep it from fogging up, but [for] the rest of your body, there’s no airflow in it.”

Given Conard’s description of the bomb suit, I had to wonder, how does an EOD technician disarm an IED with such a bulky, confining suit on?

“That’s what we’re trained to do,” Conard said. “Sometimes if you’re out there for hours and hours, you take a five [minute break]. You get in the truck, take off your helmet, get some air, put the helmet back on [and get back to the job].”

“You just do it”

Ask any EOD specialist where their confidence comes from, almost every one of them would attribute it to the training they do. It is what EOD specialists do when they are not disabling IEDs or unexploded ordnance. That is because when the time comes to put on the suit and walk the “lonely walk,” as Conard describes, he or she doesn’t have time to think.

“You just do it,” said Conard. “It’s instantaneous. [An insurgent] could be dialing the code to detonate it [the IED] on you, or has the command wire and is ready to hook a battery to it. You don’t have time to think; you just have to react and do it.”

Disarming an IED is intrinsically dangerous, but for an EOD tech the most dangerous part of their mission is not what they can see but rather, as Conard describes it, “not seeing what’s out there; the unknown.”

The unknown variable Conard alludes to is the secondary IED. A secondary IED is often a hidden explosive attached to the primary IED and is designed to detonate whenever an EOD tech attempts to disarm the primary explosive.

“If you can’t see it, that’s the most hazardous part,” Conard says. “What you can see is easy, but with all the other things your mind is focused on, you can’t focus on the little thing. That’s where it gets the most dangerous, because they’re out to kill us because we’re stopping them from killing other people.”

“The Hurt Locker”

So with everything Marvin and Conard explained to me about the world of an Explosive Ordnance Technician, I had to know what they thought of the 2010 Hollywood blockbuster, “The Hurt Locker,” and whether it accurately depicted what the real EOD is like. Conard was quick to point out that their job is not at all like what was portrayed.

“I watched five minutes of that movie…and they completely Hollywoodized it,” Conard said. “I didn’t like it. Same thing with that [TV show] ‘Bomb Patrol: Afghanistan.’ The concept is there, the equipment stuff is there, but a lot of it is make-believe. If my guys ran that way, I’d be digging in their backside on a continuous basis. That’s not how we operate. But people in the states will see that and be like ‘that’s how it is over there?’ No, that’s not how it is.”

Conard goes on to clarify that if anyone wants a history of what EOD is really like, that they should watch the BBC production “Danger: UXB.” According to Conard, it is a series on British EOD that he describes as “the best show that I’ve seen on EOD in the past.” He notes, however, that the IED world is “a whole different thing.”

The U.S. and its allies have been in Afghanistan over a decade during which time the IEDs have proliferated, putting coalition and Afghan forces alike at risk of injury or death. But with so many IEDs throughout the country, I had to wonder whether EOD is really making a difference here in Afghanistan, which Marvin immediately seized upon.

“We are making a difference with every IED or explosive we dispose of or render safe, because that one IED could have killed an American, an Afghan civilian, a NATO partner,” said Marvin. “I believe our partnership [with the Afghan National Army] is making a difference. The more that we can empower our ANA EOD teams, the better they’ll be able to handle the situation when we leave, because we are leaving eventually. The best thing that we can do is to train them up to do the job with confidence and competence.”

Pfc. Eric Wallace, 787th Ordnance Company, 3rd Ordnance Battalion, examines the remnants of six Russian anti-personnel mines that were destroyed by detonation at Forward Operating Base Wolverine, Feb. 26, 2012. The mines were X-rayed and found to be too unstable for safe keeping.

Who are these people that are willing to risk their lives neutralizing explosives that could just as easily kill them? To find out the answer, I linked up with 1st Lt. Dan Marvin and 1st Sgt. William Conard, both from 787 EOD, and learned a thing or two about those who walk “the lonely walk.”

On the surface, Conard and Marvin are straightforward, down to earth guys; the kind of men you would invite to your family barbecue. But underneath their sensible exteriors are a couple of the most courageous men in the U.S. Army. If there’s any doubt, consider how few people in the armed forces actually volunteer to walk up to a live IED, knowing full well it could be detonated at any time, and disarm it. But they do it!

“I did 10 years of warehouse-supply work, and at the end of the day I didn’t feel like I’d accomplished anything,” says Conard. “So I went to Egypt and worked with the EOD guys and did some of the stuff they did. I felt a sense of accomplishment when I finished it. ‘Hey I cleared this explosive hazard and potentially saved the lives of numerous people.’”

So a warehouseman in search of job satisfaction chose working with explosives over stocking shelves. Surely that doesn’t sound like a rational decision to some people.

You’ve got to be a little bit irrational to do it as well laughed Conard.

Marvin’s explanation wasn’t much different. An enlisted infantryman for 9 years, Marvin was looking for the next big challenge in his Army career, so he chose to attend Officer Candidate School where he made the decision to go EOD.

“I wanted to do something that would make me feel like I was playing a significant role on the battlefield and taking care of the good guys, and EOD was it,” Marvin says. “That was my option; either that or be a maintenance officer and I didn’t want to do that,” he laughs.

So what is the job of an explosive ordnance technician anyway? Do they just blow up bombs and such, or is there something more to their job?

“We’re trained and specialized to handle that threat,” Conard says. “So we clear that threat and keep the roads clear for personnel and supplies moving up and down the route [which] keeps personnel from getting hit with those devices or trying to clear them themselves.”

Still, Marvin explains, that’s not the sum of their job.

“Our job is to protect,” he says. “Our job is not necessarily to blow up bombs. Our job is to protect personnel and property. That’s the only reason we go out there and do it.”