When Sgt. James K. Healy's vehicle hit the makeshift bomb, he was in Laghar Juy to disable another improvised explosive device.

Knocked unconscious by the blast, he was immediately tended to by medics riding in another vehicle in the convoy, but Healy never regained consciousness, according to personnel familiar with his case. He died of internal injuries at Jalalabad Airfield, as did fellow passenger Maj. Michael L. Green.

Just a few months before his death in Afghanistan on January 7, Healy had reenlisted for what he had described as the most dangerous career in the Army.

Healy, 25 and a member of the Hesperia High School Class of 2000, was part of the 703rd Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company, based out of Ft. Knox. He was one of 1,200 soldiers in the Army who spend their days disabling enemy explosives.

"EOD is really different," said 1st Sgt. Mark Simeroth, of the 759th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company. His company is based out of Ft. Irwin, 2,000 miles away from the home base of the 703rd. "Our primary job, to use military lingo, is force protection. ... We risk our lives to save others."

The EOD, and their counterparts in the other branches of the military, are experts in all sorts of explosives, specifically in identifying, disabling and dismantling them. And in Iraq and Afghanistan, where such explosives are one of the primary weapons used against coalition troops, their mission is one of the most crucial ones -- and one of the most dangerous.

"We're emergency responders," said Simeroth. "You call us, and in 30 minutes or less, we're out the door and responding."

Part of the appeal of EOD is that soldiers do their mission both when deployed and back home in America. While other soldiers spend their time stateside training, EOD units are called on by civilian officials to help with bombs and other explosives off-base. The 759th has had eight calls for off-base incidents since October, typically to deal with unexploded ordnance from Ft. Irwin or potentially dangerous military scrap material.

EOD units also get called upon to provide security for VIPs, including presidential security details. While that means they get some additional liberties on hair length, the better to blend in while out in the civilian world, they're typically called to this duty with little notice, and with no respect for wedding anniversaries, birthdays or parent-teacher conferences.

"If it's an important day to you," Simeroth said, "I can almost guarantee you're not going to be there."

He estimated the 759th goes out on such details between 40 and 50 times a year.

Joining the EOD
The dangerous work of the EOD requires 10 months of training, much of it at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle.

"They make sure we are prepared with the basic skills," said Capt. Nathaniel Garza, who commands the 759th. "If I didn't feel competent and confident in my skills, I wouldn't do this job."

The work required is grueling and goes far beyond just the 10 months of 6-day-a-week training. Half of those who start the training are unable to make it through the entire program.

"After you identify yourself as wanting to be EOD, you have to prove yourself worthy," Garza said. Only those who excel on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test can even apply.

On a call, EOD soldiers wear an 80-pound Kevlar bomb suit, and it constitutes the next hurdle for a would-be unit member.

"A lot of folks are coming home alive because of that suit," said Staff Sgt. Max Cabrera, who was running a would-be member of the EOD through his paces in the suit. Applicants must go through a variety of physical and mental tests wearing the bomb suit or while sealed into a chemical protective suit.

"They'll throw coins on the floor and [applicants] have to pick up the coins in size order and date order," Garza said.

Or they'll have to run while carrying a dud bomb weighing more than 80 pounds and wearing the bomb suit. And they'll be repeatedly called upon to recall five words they were told at the beginning of the day, with each mistake costing them five push-ups.

Many applicants wash out before they even are sent to Eglin, unable to handle the physical, mental or emotional challenges: Being sealed into a chemical protective suit for hours has awakened previously unknown claustrophobia in more than one soldier.

The EOD personality
The work of an EOD soldier appeals to a certain sort, one probably all-too-familiar to school principals, neighbors and classmates.

"There's nothing cooler to a kid than blowing stuff up," Simeroth said, "Playing with fireworks in the back yard."

"I like being called crazy," Spc. Ben Parker said. "Half of the time, they don't believe you" when EOD team members tell civilians what they do for a living.

"Basically, all EOD guys are all Type-A personality," said Spc. Adam Stoffel. Type-A personalities tend to be driven, highly competitive workaholics who strive to achieve and often seem addicted to adrenaline. "I used to be a huge pyro growing up. ... I've blown myself up a few times."

"I did it for the extra excitement," said Pfc. Ben Nolte. "I figured if I was going to school and do something for the rest of my life, I wanted to do something exciting first."

"It was either go to an infantry unit," said Spc. Morgan Parr, "Or go blow things up in the desert and do details for the president."

"There's lots of guys in the EOD who are borderline genius-slash-retarded," said Spc. Josh Akins.

"You wonder how they can tie their shoes in the morning," said Spc. Shannon Mathews, "But they can take apart a computer."

The realities of the job -- that the highest ranking member of an EOD team may not be the most experienced, and that even a rookie can spot something about a bomb that will save everyone's lives -- makes for a very unmilitary sort of democracy among team members.

"We have relationships with our command that you wouldn't have in other units," said Parker.

"We have other things to worry about," said Spc. Thomas Holk.

Deployed to Afghanistan
Although not stationed there at the same time as Healy, Simeroth was deployed to Jalalabad twice, from 2002 through 2003 and for six months in 2004.

"Jalalabad is very close to the Pakistan border," he said. "It's very modernized and civilized. They have running water and power there. ... The interpreters would go to Pakistan and get us McDonald's. We were that close."

But even in peacetime, it can be an uncomfortable place to be stationed, with temperatures rising as high as 130 degrees in the summer with 85 percent humidity.

"It's very rugged, very beautiful country," Simeroth said. The High Desert resembles southern Afghanistan, he said. "Northern Afghanistan is more mountains. ... The only way you're going to get people in is by helicopter or you're walking in."

Afghanistan in general was beautiful and fascinating, he said, and being in the EOD meant getting a chance to see it.

"In general, the Afghanis are tired of fighting," Simeroth said, cautioning that things may have changed since he was last deployed there. "They want an education for their children."

And to them, the Americans are just another group of outsiders, just like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, few of whom were originally from Afghanistan. Both groups are culturally very different from the Afghanis.

"Afghanistan is very regional. Very few people travel," Simeroth said. "Some places you drive through, they haven't changed in 2,000 years. ... Some places, we had to explain to people we weren't the Russians."

The Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan ended in 1989.

"When the Russians left, they left an unbelievable amount of ammunition behind," Simeroth said. "They're going to be finding stuff [there] 100 years from now. ... There's so many caves."

The munitions left behind by the Soviet army got sucked up by the local warlords, for whom a massive supply of ammunition -- even if they are unable to use it -- is a point of pride.

"Yeah, we got involved in the firefights, but generally, it was a feel-good mission," Simeroth said. "We'd make things safer for everybody."

In the end, all the training, all of the experience and all of the care in the world and a feel-good mission can still be trumped by simple bad luck. In the end, that was what claimed Healy's life on that road in Afghanistan.

"The going to a site and coming from a site is definitely the most dangerous," Spc. Chance Renna said. "There's nothing you can do about it."

None of the members of the 759th knew Healy in life, but like their counterparts from other branches of service, they were there when he was laid to rest in an Orange County cemetery on January 24.

"I don't think anybody here knew him," said Parker, "But it doesn't matter: He was our brother."

James K. Healy, 25, is survived by his wife, Shannon, and his 13-month-old son, Wyatt.

This story is for Wyatt.
Beau Yarbrough can be reached at 956-7108 or at beau@hesperiastar.com.