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Bristol explosives expert returns from Afghanistan

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By KATHRYN FLAGG

BRISTOL — During his recent six-month tour in Afghanistan, Vermont Air National Guard Technical Sergeant Steve Heffernan, 43, braved blistering heat, guerilla warfare and a bevy of improvised explosive devices.

And as an Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) specialist, Heffernan faced the especially perilous task of uncovering and dismantling the explosive devices littered through the countryside by the Taliban and terrorist cells.

But most harrowing of all, according to Heffernan, were the roads.

“The roads, if you could call them roads, were the worst,” he said. “The best way to describe the roads would be ‘mud season, dried up.’ That was a good road.”

For Heffernan, the long road home — which included a 30-hour trip from the Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan to Baltimore — drew to a close just a week and a half ago, when the EOD team leader returned home to Bristol after six months at war.

His service in Afghanistan came after nearly 17 years in the Air National Guard.

“I’d always wanted to join the military,” Heffernan said. But after marrying his wife, Erin, when he was 21, Heffernan put his plans on the backburner.

A few years later, though, jobs dried up — and Heffernan started looking again at the military. He joined the Air National Guard, and given his blasting experience, he was a natural fit for the EOD unit. 

“I joined to serve my country, believe it or not, as corny as that can sound to some people,” Heffernan said. “I joined to serve my country because I enjoy the freedoms that we all have.”

Now, with 16 years of EOD training under his belt, Heffernan is one of around 830 trained specialists in the Air Force with an expertise in explosive devices. He’s received monthly training since enlisting, and spent several weeks prior to his deployment to Afghanistan in combat skills and EOD training at Fort Dix, N.J., and Redstone Arsenal in Alabama.

But every war is different, Heffernan said — and the explosive devices he found in Afghanistan ran the gamut from Russian or Chinese bombs to crude, homemade explosives. 

“Over in Iraq, it’s more remote devices, more complex devices,” Heffernan said. “In Afghanistan, most of it is very basic. It’s a world of difference between the two wars. Afghanistan is such a remote place, and such a poverty-stricken country, that they just don’t have the technology.”

The most common improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that Heffernan saw came in two varieties: pressure plate IEDs, which are lodged beneath roads and designed to be triggered by the weight of a passing vehicle, and command wire explosives, which are activated by an operative with a remote control.

The closest calls he ran into while at war were command wire devices. Twice Heffernan was in a convoy that stopped just minutes — and several dozen feet — away from remote-activated explosives. In both cases, the devices were detonated without harming U.S. forces.

Heffernan left home for this tour just after New Year’s and spent the first four months in Sharana, before moving to Gardez for the final two-month stint. His day-to-day work consisted of two tasks — general support, during which he and his team would dismantle IEDs or analyze post-blast sites, and route clearance patrols.

He performed route clearance missions most frequently from Gardez, where he served alongside the Kentucky Army National Guard.

“It’s an agonizing, slow process,” Heffernan said. Convoys would move at 5 or 10 miles per hour, covering 30 or 40 kilometers a day — a rate at which a trip from Heffernan’s home in Bristol to downtown Middlebury could take a full day. A “Husky” mine detection vehicle would lead the convoy, using a metal detector to search out bombs. Other times, the vehicle would set off pressure plate mines — but it’s design allowed it to sustain blasts that would have torn apart Humvees.

“That has saved probably hundreds of soldiers’ lives, that one,” Heffernan said.

His job frequently took him “outside the wire” — that is, outside of the relative security of established military bases. But Heffernan enjoyed the chance to travel. While his interactions with Afghans were limited, he said he got a sense of the culture — and that the reaction from most local people was very positive.

“They’re happy to see us,” he said. Most Afghans are still more likely to give assistance to the Taliban, he said, but Heffernan believed this stemmed from the Taliban’s brutality and threats.

As the team leader in his three-man EOD unit, Heffernan was charged with going “down range” — approaching the IEDs to assess and deactivate the devices. It can be nerve-wracking, dangerous work.

He remembered one successful operation where he was charged with handling a rocket-propelled grenade lodged inside of a 4,000-gallon fuel truck. The job took him six hours, from beginning to end.

In another operation, Heffernan and his team trekked up into the mountains, where troops had discovered a terrorist cell site. They hiked into the site, completed a bomb assessment and then disposed of two large caches of munitions stashed in the hills.

FAR FROM FAMILY

Despite the danger, Heffernan said the hardest part about his tour in Afghanistan was coping with the time spent away from his family. E-mail and the satellite telephone issued to his EOD team made contact with his wife, Erin, and three children — Sean, 19, Samantha, 17, and Ethan, 15 — easier, but the uncertainty and distance made the six-month stay difficult for everyone involved.

Still, e-mails, letters, phone calls and packages from family and friends made the stay easier.

“The support, the good thoughts, the prayers were just huge for me over there,” he said.

Many of his neighbors were initially surprised to hear that Heffernan was headed for Afghanistan when he told them he would be shipping out to war. The natural assumption, he said, was that he was being deployed to Iraq.

“I don’t feel that Afghanistan is the forgotten war,” Heffernan said, “but it definitely doesn’t get the attention that Iraq gets. While over there, I would say we get support, but we just don’t get as much support or as much coverage, I would say, as Iraq. Right now, we’re just maintaining a presence there.”

The possibility remains that Heffernan could be deployed again — though, given the National Guard’s “dwell” time, he’s guaranteed at least 30 months at home before he can be reactivated.

“If I were single, and didn’t have a family and that, I’d probably be over there a lot more,” he said. He still recommends the military as a great opportunity to work hard, build confidence and earn an education.

It’s truly a team effort, according to Heffernan.

“To me, everybody’s important,” he said. “From the guys that are at the tip of the spear to the ones that are at the far end that make sure we get our supplies, not even the most glorified jobs are very important. Without all of us it doesn’t work.”

BACK AT HOME

But for now, he’s enjoying his homecoming — though the co-owner of Heffernan Excavating, Inc. doesn’t intend to waste any time before heading back to work.

Heffernan said that getting off the plane in Burlington on July 20 to a crowd of more than 40 family members was “humbling, to say the least.”

“His face was as red as a tomato,” Heffernan’s youngest son, Ethan, chimed in.

Heffernan said that his tour of duty was, all in all, a good life experience — one that has made him grateful for his life here at home, and all the more supportive of efforts in Afghanistan he sees as intended to ultimately help the country.

“God has blessed the U.S.A.,” Heffernan said. “We’ve got a mixing pot of people, and we all get along most of the time. You go over to a country like that, that’s been around centuries and eons longer than we have, and they still fight amongst themselves — we’re doing something right here.” 

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