FERRIS, Iraq --
They might have borrowed their name from a line in the hit-comedy Anchorman, but their job is no joke.
Explosive Ordnance Disposal team “Big Deal” (also known as “Blackhawk EOD”) disarmed and destroyed more than 11,000 pounds of explosives and took more than a million rounds of small-arms ammunition from the hands of the insurgency during their seven-month tour here.
These numbers are actually lower than previous EOD deployments. Staff Sgt. Denis A. Desmarais, team leader, said numerous factors have contributed to the decrease.
“The (Iraqi Police) are starting to do their job, and all the security elements the Iraqis have put in place are starting to work,” he said.
There’s also been an increase of cooperation from local civilians, who are telling coalition forces where explosives and weapons caches are hidden.
“I think the hearts and minds of the Iraqis are starting to understand what we’re doing over here – what we’re trying to accomplish,” said Desmarais, 28, from Lincoln, R.I.
His team is part of 3rd Platoon, 2nd EOD Company, and deployed in August with 2nd Marine Logistics Group (Forward), out of Camp Lejeune, N.C. They are currently under the command of 1st MLG.
Four others make up the joint-service effort, including two Marine EOD technicians and a Navy corpsman. Additionally, an Air Force weapons intelligence specialist joined the team earlier this month.
All explosive ordnance disposal technicians volunteer for the duty. They must be proficient noncommissioned officers in their primary job before applying and are required to attend seven months of school before earning the occupational specialty. With just about 400 EOD specialists, it’s one of the smallest job fields in the Marine Corps.
“It’s a real tight community – a real fraternity within the Marine Corps,” said Sgt. Peter K. McKinney, 25, from Greenwood, Ind. “Everybody’s really close.”
McKinney, a technician with “Big Deal,” is on his second deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. It’s his first tour with an EOD team.
Since August, they’ve lived in a humble three-room compound at Forward Operating Base Blackhawk. Plastic sanitation bags are portable toilets and hearty meals come from large thermal containers, prepared with care by Marine field cooks. Literally a stone’s throw from a local village, the sound of children playing competes with the whirring of Humvee engines.
Blackhawk EOD shares the “FOB” with about 150 Marines from Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, out of Camp Pendleton, Calif.
Weapons Company patrols Ferris and other communities south of Fallujah, looking for anything that endangers U.S. service members, Iraqi security forces and civilians.
When a security patrol uncovers a weapons cache or potential improvised explosive device, “Big Deal” responds with direct support, fighting fire with fire and destroying the threat with explosives of their own.
Having an EOD team in direct support of him and the Marines under his charge “is definitely nice, especially when we’re the guys on security,” said Sgt. Jason T. Major, a section leader with Weapons Company.
The turnaround time is quick, said Major, from Grand Rapids, Mich. This isn’t surprising. Everyone hears about everything as it happens. The tight-knit FOB has the sense of a watchful neighborhood back home.
Team “Big Deal” would be best described as a family, even if it’s dysfunctional at times.
“I hate you guys,” said Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Armand “Doc” Mercado to the Marines. The grin on his face suggested he was joking. “Doc,” a 31-year-old corpsman from San Diego, always seems to be grinning about something.
The members of Big Deal have a variety of deployment experience between them, but little with small teams. Close living quarters and countless hours around the same people present a unique set of challenges.
“I don’t know that we keep each other sane, but we try,” McKinney said. He said putting any group of people together long enough can cause little annoyances and frustrations to surface, but as a whole they “mesh together well.”
Incidents requiring EOD response have dropped over the last few months, giving the team more time to “mesh” outside high-stress, bomb-diffusing environments, but that doesn’t mean anyone should be any less vigilant.
“I’d rather get called out 50 times on something that ends up being nothing than go out on one post-blast (analysis) of a military vehicle,” Desmarais said.
The Navy and Marine service members with Team Big Deal are scheduled to return to Camp Lejeune in March.