Blainenative is bomb expert in Iraq

Published on Thu, Oct 18, 2007
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Blaine native is bomb expert in Iraq

By Jack Kintner

Blaine native Clayton Swansen, an naval explosive ordnance disposal technician (EOD), returned from duty in Iraq last Monday for a week’s leave before returning to active duty in Bahrain.

here he will check piers and ship’s hulls for bombs. In Iraq his focus was on the deadly improvised explosive devices – IEDs – that are often found on roadsides and are triggered by anything from the vibrations of a heavy vehicle to a cell phone operated by someone watching from a distance.

“They’re basically a big military round,” he said, holding his hands about two feet apart, “with a blasting cap and some sort of triggering device. We have a robot we send in to take the things apart, but if that doesn’t work then we have to walk up to it and render it inoperative.”
He’s lost more than one buddy out of the 700 or so EODs in the Navy, some of whom, like Swansen, are deployed to serve with the Marine Corps while in Iraq.

Nine years ago, four months short of graduation, Swansen, 27, dropped out of Blaine high school, a step he now looks back on with some embarrassment as “definitely not the right thing to do.”

The road has not been easy from that day to where he is now, a highly trained military specialist qualified as a parachutist, diver, dolphin handler and bomb disposal expert.

After dropping out and working locally for a few months he made his way to Pleasanton in the East Bay area of California, earned his GED and was headed to firefighter school when he decided to investigate the coast guard.

“I walked into a naval recruiter’s office and he offered me a chair, and before I knew it I was in the Navy,” he grinned, still happy with the decision after seven years’ active duty.

He went to the Navy’s one remaining boot camp near Chicago and stayed to become qualified as a hull repair technician, “basically a plumber working in the bottom of big Navy ships, not my first choice but somewhere they can send you if you wash out of training later on. It’s great motivation to apply yourself,” he said.

After Hull Tech school Swansen went to Norfolk, Virginia, as a mudpup, a sort of extended basic training that weeds out dive school candidates.

“They made my body bigger and my ego smaller,” Swansen joked, “it was tough but I’ve never been in better shape.”

He made it, and after nine weeks of dive school he reported to Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle, home to the Air Armament Center, for EOD school, unusual in that he was in a Navy school located on a U.S. Air Force base.

Swansen took a year to work as a dolphin handler in San Diego during that time in a role he described as much like a canine officer in a police department.

“They’re pretty well trained by the time we get them,” he said, “so our job was to maintain their level of training,” something that involved going out with them on training maneuvers and swimming with them closely enough to check their work.

He worked with a dolphin named Akki, “who was trained to do anti-mine work and was ok, but some of the animals are trained to do anti-swimmer work and can be lethal,” he said, “even out of the water. Once when an animal had to be medicated he flipped his tail and broke a man’s jaw.”

He returned to Eglin briefly to complete his training and certification before deploying to Iraq as part of a seven-man team of EOD specialists. It’s one of the Navy’s newest ratings, and is designated by a device that includes a mine overlapping a missile and torpedo.

In Iraq he and two of his teammates were attached to a Marine Corps unit in northwestern Iraq near the Syrian border, working closely with what Swansen describes as “totally gung-ho 19 to 20-year-old men. They kept us safe,” he said.

Their patrols often worked river bottoms where caches of weapons and bombs would be found. The Marine units would then stand by and he’d get a call to come out and catalog and disarm a pile of homemade but often quite sophisticated weapons.

“It’s a lot like being a firefighter, where you’re on call 24/7. We’d have periods of inactivity and weeks where we’d go out every day.”

He said that he saw some parts from Iran but is not sure if that means much. He declined to comment on the politics of the war but did say that he’s seen progress in the domestic situation, “where the Iraqi police seem to be a lot more effective. There’s less violence now than when I first got there.”

Because of his specialized training he could command a high price if he left the military, and for that reason has been offered a nearly six-figure inducement, tax free, to re-enlist for another four years. “I’m on the fence.

“It’s a fun job to have, especially when we come home and work for the secret service in checking out premises. I’ve been to [Vice President] Cheney’s house. But I also want to do other things.”

Swansen spoke to Blaine teacher Mike Grambo’s first period world history class at Blaine high school earlier this week about his experiences, and went over so well that Grambo kept him for most of the day to speak to other classes as well.