FORWARD OPERATING BASE DUKE, Iraq -- Nervous? Yes. Wary? Always. Exhausted? Of course.
Explosive Ordnance Disposal detachment, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), has gathered more than 400 improvised explosive devices and more than 40,000 enemy unexploded ordnance items -- half of which they destroyed themselves -- since the 11th MEU assumed operational control of An Najaf, Iraq, on July 31.
EOD's mission is to detonate or defuse ordnance, inspect munitions, conduct humanitarian demining and bomb detection.
They're a five-man team that at one point was supporting three battalions -- Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, and two battalions from the Army's 1st Cavalry Division who joined the Marines during fighting in the city in August. That includes accompanying all three battalions on raids, several direct action raids with the MEU's Force Reconnaissance Platoon, fifteen raids with the Iraqi National Guard and Iraqi Police, and countless patrols. Needless to say, they're tasked out to the extreme.
"We can never really sit down to watch a football game or anything, because we always get a call on that phone," said Gunnery Sgt. Lance N. Patchadlo, assistant team leader, EOD det., pointing to the green and black military telephone waiting in their living quarters to throw them into action.
Being constantly on the move, especially during combat operations in An Najaf, lack of sleep was something else they became well accustomed too.
"Sometimes we'd go two or three days without sleep," said Sgt. Jared A. Scott, EOD technician, about their exploits during the month of August while the MEU battled radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Muqtada Militia in An Najaf. "Unlike the (infantrymen) we don't have anybody to relieve us."
Despite the exhaustion, they overcame and kept their senses sharp. They were forced to improvise in several instances during the thick of combat.
"We didn't have any rest. I don't know how many houses we cleared," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Matthew D. Middleton, EOD officer in charge. "We were even using a recoilless rifle we found as a battering ram to knock down doors for a while."
Their hard work and steadfast diligence has given their comrades in arms nothing but the highest respect for them.
"They're smart, decisive professionals," said Gunnery Sgt. Thomas A. Evans, platoon sergeant, Force Recon Plt., with whom EOD is always attached to during direct action raids. "They're solid players that have their own slice of the pie."
Besides the action, their gear sounds like something out of a science fiction movie. They use everything from robots, metal detectors, thermal imagers, binoculars and sniper's spotting scopes. Of course, all of that and everything else is only the 'highest speed, lowest drag equipment available.'
What else can one expect when explosive is in the job title? And that's something they don’t take lightly.
"You're always nervous and you're always wary," Patchadlo said. "You've got to treat everything like it's remote fired and like the bad guys are always watching."
Especially when some insurgents have it out for EOD guys in particular.
"Sometimes, EOD techs are baited in and targeted by insurgents," Patchadlo said. "They do that all the time with IEDs."
That's not even mentioning the morbid lengths insurgents go to make IEDs -- makeshift explosives used to attack convoys and innocent civilians while they can be at a safe distance and remotely detonate the device. They commonly use the corpses of people, dogs, goats, cattle and donkeys. There were probably a lot more IEDs other than the 400 safely disarmed, Patchadlo claims.
"Marines can't always stop and call in that an IED went off when they're in the middle of combat," Patchadlo said.
Middleton attributes much of their team's success thus far with learning the enemy's techniques, tactics and procedures beforehand.
"We had two weeks to practice, where we got to learn how they were setting up," he said.
But for now, they're mostly busy with destroying weapons left over by the Muqtada Militia. They've taken care of nearly 3,000 various weapons so far.
"We've been working closely with local Iraqi Police to find any explosive hazards left by the militia," Patchadlo said. "People will find little things the (insurgents) hid, then they get killed or captured and it's left there."
To the insurgent's dismay, none of their ordnance or IEDs found ever exploded in the streets of Najaf. Of the hundreds of munitions and IEDs found, EOD moved all of them outside city limits to be safely destroyed.
"No UXOs or IEDs were blown up by us in the city to lessen the collateral damage they might do," Middleton said.
Even though there's much more to be done, they're optimistic that they have made this area safer.
"There's more out there than we've taken care of. All we can do is focus on what we have done and hope we've made a difference," Middleton said.