Real work just beginning for Marine EOD technicians;

19 May 2003 | Army Staff Sgt. David Bennett

Outside a brick factory in Al Hillah, Iraq, Marine engineer and explosive ordnance disposal specialists piled a number of Soviet-made 120 mm mortar rounds into a heap.

The mortar rounds weren't recovered from a secret weapons cache, but make up part of the battle debris that inundates every neighborhood and community in southern Iraq. The mass of munitions has become a primary focus for coalition forces since the end of hostilities, as more accidental discharges are reported -- many involving children.

The task of deactivating the deadly devices falls to the 1st Force Service Support Group Explosive Ordnance Disposal Platoon, a 30-person unit from Camp Pendleton, Calif. 

Thousands of tons of mines, rockets, and ammunition far outstrip the number of EOD technicians, who number just 88, according to Marine Capt. Ron Heflin, the First Marine Expeditionary Force's explosive ordnance disposal officer.

However, that number has been halved since a second EOD platoon returned home to Camp Lejeune, N.C. a few days ago.

That means EOD specialists are doing more with less, said Marine Maj. Todd Greeno, information officer for First Marine Expeditionary Force Engineers.

"The ordnance problem is going to take years to alleviate," Greeno said. "You have residual from the Iran-Iraq War, from the first Gulf War, from (this war)."

The total number of 120 mm mortar rounds found near the brick factory were more than a dozen, in addition to other unexploded ordnance, including Dual Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions or DPICM.  One of the most prevalent, scattered around southern Iraq, is the BLU-97, a type of cluster bomblet the size of a soda can, which can be used as an anti-armor, fragmentation or incendiary munition.

Marine and other military forces have seen growing incidents of civilians hurt by unexploded munitions because they are curious about what they find.

"The big problem are things that are thrown around all over the place," Greeno said. "We've found artillery shells in mud huts. Little kids are always pointing out landmines behind bushes."

As if on cue, two young Iraqi men approach the EOD specialists and tell of two more unexploded mortar rounds near a home across the street from the brick factory. The munitions marked for detonation continued to grow.

Master Gunnery Sgt. Samuel A. Larter, staff noncommissioned officer in charge of 1st EOD platoon, said the incident is something he is all too familiar with.

"We could spend 10 years here and we wouldn't make a dent," Larter said.

Most of the heavy work has taken place in Baghdad, where normal homes were turned into makeshift ammunition bunkers. Larter recounted that technicians removed 130 tons of munitions from one neighborhood.

"There was a 3,000-square-foot home was packed wall-to-wall with ordnance," Larter said.

Sgt. Stephen H. Kuester, of Ashland, Ore., is serving on one of seven, two-man teams currently scouring the cities of Ad Diwaniya, Al Hillah, Al Kut, An Nasiriay, An Najaf, As Samawah and Karbala.

Many EOD technicians such as Kuester had served with regimental combat teams during the war clearing terrain of mines for advancing forces. Now the job has grown wider in scope as they scour schools, mosques, and playgrounds for potentially dangerous munitions.

A recent graduate of the explosive ordnance disposal school when the 1st EOD Platoon left Camp Pendleton Feb. 1, Kuester has received intense on-the-job training in just a few short months.   

"You learn what to do, and what not to do, real quick, or you're not going home," Kuester said.

Because the men doing this job take their lives in their hands daily, their skills have been honed razor-sharp. They will undoubtedly get sharper as the job grows in scope.

"Two million pieces of ordnance have been destroyed in the last 40 days and not one (EOD) person has been hurt or killed," said Warrant Officer James N. Skelstad, an Auburndale, Fla. native who serves 1st Platoon commander.

Eventually the job of finding and disposing of ordnance will be turned over to civilian contractors when the Marines rotate home. For now, the task is clear, as well as awesome.

"It's endless work," Larter said. "Every time the wind blows, or it rains, more is uncovered."