JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq -- “Fire in the hole, fire in the hole, fire in the hole,” the soldier yells just before the flat, sandy landscape ...
... explodes into clouds of smoke with fiery cores and stray sparks of orange light.
The shock waves plow underground as if bolts of thunder are striking upwards from the center of the earth. The sound floods eardrums like a dozen M4s popping off rounds.
One soldier watching in the background giggles quietly as if she is surprised to still be standing.
“All the different agencies out here including other services -- Air Force, Army and the Navy -- they all turn over un-serviceable munitions to us," says Staff Sgt. Mathew Kimberling with the Air Force's 332nd Explosive Ordinance Disposal, "and we come out here and dispose of them a couple times a week.”
Staff Sgt. Mathew Kimberling holds a roll of shock tube and sends out a radio message, notifying the base that EOD is ready to initiate the controlled detonation.
The EOD is the military’s equivalent of a bomb squad at Joint Base Balad in Iraq, where Oregon National Guard medevac units from Charlie Company are stationed.
“One of the biggest things we dispose of is small arms ammunition that’s captured from the enemy, like AK-47 rounds,” Kimberling says. The controlled detonations of such materials create an explosion that soldiers can feel in housing trailers all around Balad.
Whenever the EOD has a disposal day, they allow other soldiers to visit the site and view the bombs bursting in air. There is always someone eager to see stuff get blown up.
At 7 a.m., the seven visitors meet at the EOD compound. They are greeted by several concrete barriers where the words “Tony and Will’s Place” are painted in bright colors.
The sign is a memorial dedicated to two soldiers in the EOD.
“We’re a close knit family,” says Kimberling, who estimates there are only about 1,500 soldiers in his line of work.
Kimberling, a close friend to one of the fallen soldiers, remembers the day he heard the news.
“I was in Baghdad getting on a plane to leave when he was killed,” he says.
Memorial murals are not uncommon in Iraq, like giant tombstones on the freeway; it reminds soldiers of the sacrifices made during war.
On third deployment to Iraq: 'Things have slowed down'
Kimberling, who is on his third deployment to Iraq, is no stranger to soldiering through the bad times.
On his first deployment in 2005, he was based near Kirkut and his unit disarmed Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) with armored vehicles.
“Back then missions were 24/7, you slept when you could,” says Kimberling, whose unit would commonly run into four IEDs a day. “A lot of our efforts were post blast.”
Kimberling helped collect evidence like cell phones or washing machine timers used for IED detonators.
In 2007, Kimberling performed route clearance missions in Baghdad. “We would go out in the dead of night and cruise the roads at 5 to 10n mph,” says Kimberling, reminiscing about the old days.
The EOD in Balad has several MRAP -- Mine Resistant Ambush Proof -- vehicles at their facility, but quiet days prevent them from needing to roll outside of the base.
“If IEDs become more common or if an aircraft went down, they’d send the MRAP out,” says Kimberling.
The MRAP comes equipped with the bomb-disarming robot, which Kimberling calls the “EOD’s best friend” and a tourist attraction. The armored vehicle also contains bomb suits -- covered from head to toe with armor -- and an x-ray machine.
“My first deployment was the busiest it’s been,” Kimberling says looking at the gear inside the MRAP, which smells like a new car. “Things have slowed down.”
Despite the change of pace, Kimberling’s only complaint is missing his family. When he’s not on a deployment, he is stationed at Travis Air Force Base in California with his wife, his 18-year-old stepson and 15-year-old step-daughter.
It can’t be easy being a 24-year-old father, but Kimberling has gained certain maturity through the military, which has a rich history of turning boys to men.
“For somebody that doesn’t know how to be responsible, it (the military) teaches you to be responsible,” says Kimberling, who joined the Air Force right out of high school.
But Kimberling attributes his parenting skills to his childhood experiences with his family in Lincoln City, Ore.
Kimberling, an Oregonian at heart, often wishes there was a way to return to his hometown.
“If I could get stationed in Oregon I would,” says Kimberling. But he looks forward to relocating his family to another base in Colorado, where he can take up his hobby of motorcross.
“I haven’t been able to ride for the last five years,” says Kimberling who has been busy with his family and a continuous string of deployments.
Despite losing out on free time, Kimberling still loves his job. He mentions it several times throughout the day.
“I get paid to blow up stuff,” says Kimberling with a smile. There are only a few soldiers now in Balad that get that rush of blood from controlling explosions with their own hands.
On this day, Kimberling and his team drive to the center of Joint Base Balad to set up five detonation sites for destroying about 600 expired U.S. military flares.
Kimberling stacks rows of flares and sticks of C4 on a flattened wooden box. A plastic cap filled with a very small amount of sensitive explosives is inserted into one of the C4 sticks.
“Normally explosives take a combination of heat, shock and friction to get set off,” says Kimberling. “Blasting caps will get set off with one" -- heat.
According to Kimberling, a small cylinder with a ring called a M18 Pull Initiator is attached to a line of shock tubes. When it’s pulled, a flame travels at 6,500 feet per second, igniting the blasting cap via heat.
Staff Sgt. Heidi Leon, an EOD Craftsmen, detonates the last explosion with the M18 Pull Initiator.
The visitors ready their cameras and stare out into the desert with the crease of anticipation on their brows.
“I’m out here on the range today just to have some fun with EOD, just see how the units work under our group and … blow stuff up,” says 24-year-old Senior Airmen Erik Nielson from Helena, Mont., who works for the Mission Support Group in Balad.
Visitors help detonate the flares and C4.
After helping to detonate the explosions from a safe distance of 1,000 feet, Nielson is thrilled by the boom.
“It’s incredible, being a pyromaniac myself, this is great,” jokes Nielson, who has been inspired by today’s events to perhaps change his career field.
For Kimberling, explosions are just another day in the life of an OED Journeyman. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a wide smile set on his face.
Cali Bagby is embedded with the Oregon Army National Guard from Charlie Company, 7th Battalion, 158th Aviation, a Medevac Unit based out of Salem, Ore., for KVAL.com. Her work has been published in the Washington Post and the Eugene Weekly. | More stories | Visit her Web site