MADISON, Wis. --
The mortar was lying smack dab in the middle of the dusty road.
From his vantage point, Tech. Sgt. Bill Williams sized up the lethal explosive and quickly knew what he had to do. But getting to the mortar meant running through a shooting gallery.
Williams is a bomb disposal technician - think "The Hurt Locker" - and it's his job to defuse all manner of explosives. On this day, July 26, 2010, Williams and another airman were called to the village of Shah Mazar in Afghanistan's Logar Province, where soldiers looking for a kidnapped U.S. sailor had been rocked by an improvised explosive device. The IED kicked out an unexploded mortar into the middle of the road.
It had to be defused.
"We didn't know they were in an active firefight. When we stepped off the bird, they said 'keep your head down,' " said Williams, 34, of Sun Prairie.
Usually the area is secured before Explosive Ordnance Disposal members arrive. Not on this hot July day.
Williams, a member of the Wisconsin Air National Guard 115th Explosive Ordnance Disposal flight, carried a loaded backpack: 10 bricks of C-4 explosive, blasting caps, a metal detector, a spool of nonelectric tubing filled with explosive powder and a hook and line kit. He had a GPS in his pocket to record the exact location of the bomb plus six magazines of ammunition, an M-4 rifle and a 9mm handgun strapped to his thigh. His partner also carried what's known as a "bang stick" used to set off explosions at a safe distance.
Surrounded by high walls made of packed mud in a corral, Williams and the other troops were taking small-arms fire from several directions. Leaving his pack and weapons behind, Williams ran toward the mortar.
After throwing a ladder over a wall, he climbed down 20 feet to the packed dirt road carrying the spool of thin tubing, two bricks of C-4 and blasting caps. He ran up to the explosive device, unrolled about 75 feet of tubing filled with explosive powder, attached the C-4 and a blasting cap.
"I can't tell you how I climbed down, all I know is I was moving fast," Williams recalled. "It seemed like three seconds I was there and back."
Thrust into combat
The mortar was safely blown up, making a loud cracking noise. Then Williams grabbed his weapon and returned fire as the enemy popped up to take shots at them. Though he has worked in bomb disposal for 14 years, it was the first time he fired his weapon in combat.
For his actions that day, Williams was awarded the Air Force Combat Action Badge, given to airmen who come under hostile fire while working outside a defended perimeter. When he received the medal earlier this year, Williams was only the fourth Wisconsin Air National Guard member to receive the award.
"The medal means less to me personally than it does bringing attention to EOD. It's a lifestyle, once you get into it, it's something you eat, sleep and breathe," said Williams, who also earned a Bronze Star for his work during his last deployment to Afghanistan.
Though it's uncommon for Explosive Ordnance Disposal members to come under direct fire like Williams and his partner on that day, their job is incredibly dangerous. His best friend was killed in Afghanistan in 2009, one of 17 Air Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal technicians who have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many more have suffered amputated limbs.
Each IED is different, like a fingerprint, and it's up to the bomb disposal technicians to figure out how to defuse it or blow it up safely, said Williams' commander, Senior Master Sgt. Ed Smith.
"One of the difficulties is that we don't know how sophisticated it will be. It may be simple or it might be far more complicated and time-consuming and impossible to render safe," Smith said.
A few months before Williams defused the mortar while under fire, he handled a unique case at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. Four suicide bombers had managed to get through a perimeter fence carrying backpacks filled with rocket propelled grenades and limpet mines to stick on vehicle gas tanks. Each wore a suicide vest with grenades in their pockets and a grenade fuse as a dead man's switch in their hands, rigged to explode even if they were killed before they could blow themselves up.
They were all shot to death before they could trigger their suicide vests. A remote-controlled robot could not be used, and Williams had to carefully cut open their vests and delicately remove the explosives.
"It's like putting a puzzle together. It's when you miss a puzzle piece that bad things happen," Williams said.
Original article found here