EOD tech tells Afghan story

26 Sep 2002 | Sgt. G.S. Thomas

For a lot of Marines, the thought of disarming explosives, probing and searching for mines, or disposing enemy ordnance is a bit daunting.

Just ask Sgt. Michael J. Gattis, the Marine Corps' current Explosive Ordnance Disposal "Technician of the Year." He can tell people firsthand stories of flying shrapnel and fragmentation wounds based on his time with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit in Afghanistan.

The 8th Engineer Support Battalion Marine said perhaps his most frightening story was when he helped evacuate a Marine who detonated a land mine and lost part of his leg.

"Initially, we were setting up shots to destroy some enemy ordnance," said Gattis. "Then we heard an uncontrolled detonation. An EOD technician came across the 'walkie-talkie' saying he needed immediate assistance -- a land mine had gone off."

Gattis and his partners rushed to the scene where 12 Marines were injured. Some had minor injuries such as wounds to the hands, legs and head. Then there was the Marine and his leg.

While Gattis' Marines secured a perimeter, he and others started the task at hand: probing and clearing a path to the worst casualty.

"It was like probing through concrete," Gattis said. "It rained two days prior, and the sun baked the earth. At first, we tried using wooden probes because there were land mines out there that detonate when touched by something metal."

Gattis said that despite the risk they resorted to using their KABAR knives.

"You can't just jab the KABAR in the deck because you can detonate the mine," the Tampa, Fla., native said. "You have to apply enough force to make it through the earth, but you can't apply too much or you could detonate a mine. That's the pucker factor."

Gattis said the pucker factor is part of what he enjoys about his work in EOD.

"People are afraid of explosives because they don't have the knowledge about them," said Gattis. "Knowledge is the power, and if you have the knowledge there's nothing to be scared of. But there's always the chance that you or your teammate could make a mistake."

There are other parts of EOD work that appeal to him as well.

"There's no micromanagement out there," he said. "As a sergeant in Afghanistan, I was advising captains, majors ... even colonels."

Gattis' actions in Afghanistan were the driving force behind his award, according to Capt. Mark Tarter, EOD platoon commander, and Philadelphia native.

Gattis said even after earning the prestigious award, he has goals to accomplish.

"The next thing I want to work with is force reconnaissance," said Gattis. "[EOD is] there with them to isolate and disrupt explosive devices. At the same time, you are a key player. You are actually part of that platoon, and you do a lot of high-speed, ninja stuff."