Members of Navy’s bomb squad share stories of Iraq

FREELAND — Veterans of several 20th century wars stood in awe of the high-tech military gear that was on display Friday, but it was the modern-day war stories told by local sailors that captivated the crowd at last week’s Old Goats’ luncheon.

Three members of an elite Navy bomb squad had come from the Naval Air Station Whidbey Island to the Useless Bay Golf and Country Club to speak to the Old Goats, a usually feisty group based on the South End that hosts forums on hot topics throughout the year. The sailors brought with them marvels of modern warfare ranging from a bomb disposal robot to mine-diving equipment.

Many of the former service members in the audience were more than impressed with the tools American military work with today.

“The only piece of gear I recognize is the blast cap,” said Chuck Leavitt, who had been stationed in 1952 Germany. He recalled bomb squads back then that consisted of two men and an old truck.

“These three men and this equipment is the reason why our military is the best in the world,” he added.

Navy 1st Class Petty Officer Ray Kassow, 1st Class Petty Officer Andrew Lehtinen and 2nd Class Petty Officer Maikara Lyman of Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 11 also brought with them their stories from combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and how the gear on display had saved lives in the wars.

They also offered plain talk on the conflict that has left 3,868 U.S. troops dead, including six from the Navy base in Oak Harbor this year.

“Once you get to Iraq you get tested every day,” Lehtinen said. “Make no mistake, these guys are there to kill Americans.”

Lehtinen had traveled across wide parts of Iraq during his recent deployment.

Some audience members were curious about daily life for the troops, and where they slept at night.

The sailors said it widely varies, from living in barracks to living in tents, but sometimes they don’t even have tents.

Lehtinen recalled living out of a truck with two other guys for three weeks.

“No showers in 120-degree weather. That was no fun,” he said.

Kassow talked about his deployment to a small base in Afghanistan that had about 80 sailors, marines and soldiers.

During his time in Afghanistan he served on many calls, but also had a chance to interact with locals and learn about the culture.

“It was a very isolated region,” Kassow said. “We got to see how people live. It was a very enriching experience.”

However, he said the team never lost sight of the seriousness of their job. Enemy encounters and firefights were part of this world.

And just a few weeks ago, the base lost seven soldiers during a fight with the enemy, he said.

“I am not going to lie, we get scared doing our job,” Kassow said.

The men and women of Whidbey’s EODMU-11 know very well the danger that exists in a war zone.

EODMU-11, more than any other explosive ordnance unit in the Navy, has learned it firsthand this year. The tightknit unit of 85 members has lost six sailors in Iraq since spring.

“We have a saying, you only get one bad day,” Lehtinen said.

“This year, we have lost six EOD techs, more than any other service. I had the distinct pleasure of knowing all of these guys,” he said.

On Nov. 5, Petty Officer 2nd Class Kevin Bewley was killed by a rocket-powered grenade Monday in Iraq’s Sala ad Din Province. Chief Petty Officer Patrick Wade and 1st Class Petty Officer Jeffrey Chaney died July 17 in Iraq following an explosion that destroyed their armored vehicle. Another teammate was seriously injured. Only three months earlier, EOD Chief Petty Officer Gregory John Billiter, Petty Officer 1st Class Joseph Adam McSween and Petty Officer 2nd Class Curtis Ralph Hall died in Iraq April 6.

The losses were devastating, but the unit still has high morale and is keenly focused on completing its assigned missions.

Lyman, who just recently became part of the Whidbey Island bomb squad, explained that the training is extensive and only the best make it through dive school, EOD and paratrooper training.

“My class started with 14 and graduated with four,” he said.

Lyman said extensive training and working in small teams ties the team together.

“It’s a brotherhood,” he said. “It’s a community that helps you out.”

As war continues in Iraq and Afghanistan, EOD technicians have become more and more familiar with the weaponry that is aimed at U.S. and coalition forces.

In Iraq, Lehtinen said the enemy has become more sophisticated in creating and hiding roadside bombs. It’s made the Navy bomb squad’s job more challenging.

“This is our first line of defense,” he said, pointing at the bomb disposal robot as he navigated it through the room, its chains rattling the glasses on the tables.

While the EOD technicians are trained for airborne missions as well as missions on land or under water, disposing of improvised explosive devices in crisis areas around the globe has been EODMU-11’s main job in recent years.

“IEDs are definitely our bread and butter these days,” Lehtinen said.

Safety is always first, even in a war zone, they said.

“We don’t want to go into a country and blow something up. We have to think of the people there and make sure they are safe like our own,” Lehtinen said.

There have been positive and negative encounters with the local population, he added.

“The Iraqi people as a whole don’t like to live with a dictator,” Lehtinen said. “But they don’t want to live like us. They are Moslems. They have thousands of years of traditions.”

Some audience members wanted to know if the Navy experts could tell if any of the devices used by the enemy were coming from Iran.

Kassow said he couldn’t comment on the heritage of the devices the sailors have seen, but he did say they can tell were many of them had been built.

“When I was in Afghanistan, we saw weapons from everywhere,” he said. “Last time I checked, we weren’t at war with any of these countries.”

However, the men did not come to the South End just to talk shop.

Rufus Rose, an organizer of the Old Goats, said he invited the Navy specialists to put faces to the numbers they’ve seen in news reports about the war, and to show the military their appreciation for their service.

“I hope after today you will say these are my troops,” Rose told the audience.

The EOD technicians said the best way to show appreciation is to say thanks to a service member.

“No matter what your political views are, we are all American citizens. Come up and say you appreciate what we do. Simply just say ‘thanks,’” Kassow said.

“We’re dealing with all of this deadly stuff so you don’t have them over here,” Lehtinen added.

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