Close Call

Somehow, in the middle of my manic day with Team Mayhem, I managed to sneak in a ride on a Blackhawk helicopter. The 717ths commanding officer, Capt. Greg Hirschey, had to deliver a shipment of robots to one of his bomb squads in the town of Mahmudiya, about twenty-five miles to the south. I wanted to see Iraq from the sky. Hirschey needed an extra set of hands. So I helped out with the delivery.
trigger.jpgJohnnie Mason, who was waiting in Mahmudiya when we lug the robots off of the copter, was particularly glad to see us and the machines when we land. Four days earlier, he had come within inches of losing his life because he didn’t have a robot handy.
The first bot, nicknamed Layla, was flambed after it dropped some thermite grenades in a suspected car bomb, and couldn?t get its spindly arms out of the window. The second lost its video feed, before Mason could send it to look a row of human corpses, rotting by a canal in the 118 degree heat. So Mason had to see for himself to whether there really were wires and artillery shells stuffed underneath one of the bodies.
“Figures,” Mason muttered. “I’ve had a bad feeling all day long that today was really gonna suck.” It took him an hour to just to find the access road where the corpses were. Ordinarily, the bomb squads use GPS trackers, to plot out their routes and to make sure they’re not following the same path every time. But this road wasn’t on any of the maps.
Mason — a lanky, 31 year-old Texan with big brown eyes and a goofy smile — was strapped into an 80-pound, sumo-esque Kevlar “bomb suit.” He grabbed a long metal pole with a hook on one end. And then he began to march through the tall grass to the right of the bodies, looking for wires. Mason made a wide sweep maybe 200 meters to avoid potential landmines on the way. He found the detonation cord when he reached the far side of the bodies. It was coming from underneath the corpses, attached to a 122 mm shell. Mason fought back an urge to puke. The dead bodies, they smelled like catfish bait.
But there was no time to heave. Mason figured he only had a moment or two to act before a bomber detonated his device. So he ducked behind a three-foot berm, reached out with his pole, and pulled.
Mason was less than 20 feet away when the shells went off. But he still had time to crouch into a fetal position before the shock wave hit him. And to be terrified. “It was too fast for me to think, ‘Oh God, I’m gonna die,'” Mason says. “It was just instant fear.”
Dirt flew up. Shard of bomb zipped through the air. The shockwave knocked Mason over. But he was intact, somehow. I stood up, and all this dust and dirt and rocks fall off of me. I looked like the Hulk, in that big green suit, he smiled.
Masons partner, Pfc. Brian James, ran over. Are you alright? he yelled. Where you at?
Im in Iraq, Brooke! Mason shouted back. That was his wifes name.
Mason sat down for fifteen minutes, drank some water. And then he went right back to the bodies. Before the handmade bomb had gone off, he noticed a second shell, 20 meters away. So Mason took a couple pounds of C4 plastic explosive, and set the thing off. I still had a job to do, he told me, as he picked up the cordless phone than nearly killed him. He keeps it as a souvenir.

  • JSAllison

    Back in the day, I considered going eod. They didn’t want e5s at the time though. I’ve frequently thanked my lucky stars since. Much safer on tanks ;)

  • John Farnsworth

    You kind of get the feeling from this post that the author wants to sleep with Mason.

  • wes

    What did he pull with the pole, the det cord?
    Then what did the phone do?

  • Alex

    @Wes: like enough, the bomber had rigged a compromise device as well as the phone so that it would go off if tampered with.
    Anyway, I’m more surprised nobody thought to react to “The 717ths commanding officer, Capt. Greg Hirschey, had to deliver a shipment of robots to one of his bomb squads in the town of Mahmudiya..” with a quick THESE AREN’T THE ROBOTS YOU ARE LOOKING FOR!

  • toni

    I am just amazed at what these guys do. They must have nerves of steel!

  • sammy

    I recently learned form my nephew who is a US infantry captain in Iraq protecting convoys that the humveys are equiped with devices that can detonate the IED from a distance automatically. The problem is that when the device is turned on it also interferrs with convoy communications.
    does anyone know of any solution to this problem?

  • Tim B.

    I just read today that Johnnie Mason was killed in Iraq. No details were given but it was said to have been work related.

  • salmonking

    SSG Mason was responding to an IED on 19 DEC 05 near Al Mahmudiyah Iraq, His Immediate action saved the lives of four soldiers. Rest in peace John.

  • Detn8ur

    As a retired Master EOD Technician I too am deeply saddened by the loss of SSG Johnnie Mason.
    Someone mentioned nerves of steel. In an insurgent war of IED’s, these fine young men and women present nothing less. But more importantly it is their COURAGE…. I cannot remember the quoter, but someone was once ask to define courage and the response says it all.
    “Courage! Those are the ones who are scared, but go anyway!”
    GOD Bless them ALL!

  • John S

    Johnnie not only served his country doing what he absolutely loved, but he was also served his community back in Clarksville as a Reserve Deputy Sheriff. He will be truely missed.

  • LT Chris Kehl

    All,
    I was HHC Xo for 108th when Johnnie 5 worked w/our Mortars (EOD Escort) in Muhamidiyah Iraq. He, SFC Herndon, SPC James and Crazy SSG Peche were the quirky smile on every soldier’s face in TF 108th. A secret weapon both in and out of the fight. The EOD fight is not one easily discussed in the open. Lots of hush hush things, but let’s just say these guys aren’t as simple as “bombsquad” or UXO guys like they were in Bosnia. As the new Mortar PL for 108th, 8 of us drove back from Central Iraq to BDaddy because the memory of the man was worth the risk.
    For the EOD community, I will be at Eglin next year for annual services. I might not be EOD family, but I lost a long-lost cousin that day too.
    CHRISTOPHER C KEHL JR.
    1LT, AR, Ga ARNG
    Mortar Platoon Leader - PUNISHER6
    HHC, 1/108th AR
    CSC Scania, Iraq
    “To see victory only when it is within the ken of the common herd is not the acme of excellence. ”
    Sun Tzu

  • joe schmo

    Why not create hot air ballons or Blimps armed with infrared and all types of realtime area scanning that can stay stationary along the Iraq border indefinitely able to be refueled. Also in Afganistan the same could be applied in the mountainous regions where the terrorist are hiding. Or in the US along the border to prevent drugs and illegal aliens from entering the US. It would be a very economical way of providing security.

  • Josh

    EOD Hush hush? Please. Every frigging unit in Iraq thinks what they do is hush hush.

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