Close Call

Somehow, in the middle of my manic day with Team Mayhem, I managed to sneak in a ride on a Blackhawk helicopter. The 717ths commanding officer, Capt. Greg Hirschey, had to deliver a shipment of robots to one of his bomb squads in the town of Mahmudiya, about twenty-five miles to the south. I wanted to see Iraq from the sky. Hirschey needed an extra set of hands. So I helped out with the delivery.trigger.jpgJohnnie Mason, who was waiting in Mahmudiya when we lug the robots off of the copter, was particularly glad to see us and the machines when we land. Four days earlier, he had come within inches of losing his life because he didn't have a robot handy.The first bot, nicknamed Layla, was flambed after it dropped some thermite grenades in a suspected car bomb, and couldn?t get its spindly arms out of the window. The second lost its video feed, before Mason could send it to look a row of human corpses, rotting by a canal in the 118 degree heat. So Mason had to see for himself to whether there really were wires and artillery shells stuffed underneath one of the bodies."Figures," Mason muttered. "I've had a bad feeling all day long that today was really gonna suck." It took him an hour to just to find the access road where the corpses were. Ordinarily, the bomb squads use GPS trackers, to plot out their routes and to make sure they're not following the same path every time. But this road wasn't on any of the maps.Mason -- a lanky, 31 year-old Texan with big brown eyes and a goofy smile -- was strapped into an 80-pound, sumo-esque Kevlar "bomb suit." He grabbed a long metal pole with a hook on one end. And then he began to march through the tall grass to the right of the bodies, looking for wires. Mason made a wide sweep maybe 200 meters to avoid potential landmines on the way. He found the detonation cord when he reached the far side of the bodies. It was coming from underneath the corpses, attached to a 122 mm shell. Mason fought back an urge to puke. The dead bodies, they smelled like catfish bait.But there was no time to heave. Mason figured he only had a moment or two to act before a bomber detonated his device. So he ducked behind a three-foot berm, reached out with his pole, and pulled.Mason was less than 20 feet away when the shells went off. But he still had time to crouch into a fetal position before the shock wave hit him. And to be terrified. "It was too fast for me to think, 'Oh God, I'm gonna die,'" Mason says. "It was just instant fear."Dirt flew up. Shard of bomb zipped through the air. The shockwave knocked Mason over. But he was intact, somehow. I stood up, and all this dust and dirt and rocks fall off of me. I looked like the Hulk, in that big green suit, he smiled.Masons partner, Pfc. Brian James, ran over. Are you alright? he yelled. Where you at?Im in Iraq, Brooke! Mason shouted back. That was his wifes name.Mason sat down for fifteen minutes, drank some water. And then he went right back to the bodies. Before the handmade bomb had gone off, he noticed a second shell, 20 meters away. So Mason took a couple pounds of C4 plastic explosive, and set the thing off. I still had a job to do, he told me, as he picked up the cordless phone than nearly killed him. He keeps it as a souvenir.

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