Story and photo by MC1 Gino Flores
CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan – Senior Chief Petty Officer Ronald G. Ameika, an explosive ordnance disposal expert, is ready to turn the page. The final chapter in a long Navy career will soon come to an end, marking the end of 30 salty years of service.
It’s a journey that began soon after high school graduation in New London, Conn.
“At the tender age of 17, I was working in the food industry and taking vocational food courses,” Ameika recalled. “Cooking is what I knew and enjoyed, the restaurant that employed me suddenly closed and curiously enough I stumbled into the recruiter’s office. I was looking for a challenge and an opportunity to continue to do what I enjoyed.”
As Ameika reflected, he leaned forward to tell sea stories about how he became an explosives handling expert, but first the senior chief shot a piercing look as though peering through a magnifying glass. He sighed, and for a moment pondered whether to continue his tale. Then he cautiously began again.
“We are a tight-lipped community,” Ameika reflected about the explosive ordnance disposal field. “Our community is humble and not looking to toot our horn.”
As he gradually opened up, he pointed out reasons for the tight-lipped nature of the typical explosive ordnance disposal tech. They are the military’s bomb squad, the men and women who disarm, defuse and destroy live ordnance, whether a dud bomb dropped during training, or a pressure plate improvised explosive device laid by insurgents in Helmand province. It is a job of extreme risk, enormous pressure and frequent danger.
But first Ameika wanted to talk about what led him to become an EOD tech.
“It all started when I joined the fleet as mess management specialist,” he recalled. “My first job was as a ship’s cook aboard the USS Concord. I then joined the submariner’s community in 1984 and continued doing my job aboard the USS Phoenix [and USS Bluefish].
“It was a more personal and rewarding [experience] to cook on a sub because of the challenge of being responsible for the whole meal versus only part of the meal as it’s done on a ship,” explained Ameika.
However, while serving aboard the USS Minneapolis-St. Paul in 1987, Ameika was diagnosed as having a skin condition that made it impossible to remain in the culinary arts and was forced to make a career change.
Ameika crossed over to the submarine’s navigation department, where he became a qualified quartermaster responsible for plotting, charting and steering the submarine’s directions to and from port.
During his deployments with the submarine community, an interest in scuba diving led Ameika to seize a career-enhancing opportunity to train as a Navy diver. In 1990, he applied and was accepted to dive school. After completing the five-week course in Panama City, Fla., he returned to the Minneapolis-St. Paul to join the sub’s dive team.
However, Ameika had experienced a career-altering moment while attending training as a diver.
“I was introduced to the EOD community, a pipeline of recruits and their dive instructors,” Ameika said.
The EOD techs at the dive school impressed the young Ameika with their energy and drive. This fueled his determination and spark the interest necessary to formulate his next goal: joining the EOD ranks.
“I put in several applications for explosive ordnance disposal school, but because I was in the submarine community it was difficult to get released,” Ameika reflected.
Ameika persisted and began training as an EOD tech in 1993 where he learned to disarm and eliminate surface and underwater mines and unexploded ordnance and how to counter improvised explosive devices.
He also operated some of the latest gadgets and tools used in the industry, including remote control robots, metal detectors and explosive protection suits. He studied the skills required for the mission of providing safe and secure passage for troops on land or water.
The modernization of EOD equipment has vastly improved due to the ongoing real-time mission requirements dictated by the missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, said Ameika.
“There have been many lessons learned and technological gaps have been filled and we’re consistently improving,” Ameika added. “A lot has changed since 2002 due to war time requirements.”
Today’s EOD techs are smarter, better, faster, more tech-savvy and are better able to grasp the skills necessary for the job, Ameika said.
During the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, the Navy’s EOD teams have operated alongside Marine, Air Force and Army explosives experts. They have also conduct training and operations with techs from foreign militaries.
“Basic explosive safety is the same throughout all the services and coalition forces,” Ameika said. “There are minor differences in equipment used between some of coalition forces however.”
Currently deployed on his final tour, Ameika has been serving as a lead instructor at the Joint Sustainment Academy Southwest in Helmand province, teaching and mentoring Afghan security forces. His expertise on explosives handling has helped train new Afghan security forces members in counter insurgent IED tactics.
“We are training the Afghan students at the academy to search and locate victim-activated IEDs and destroy them in place,” Ameika explained. “It’s an interim step in helping them eliminate explosive hazards similar to what some of the U.S. Army engineer units do – route clearance and destroy IEDs in place.
“In the future they will need a viable EOD force but it may be a while before they get there,” he added.
Ameika has a destination of his own to reach; he will soon return home to family and friends and cap 30 years of diverse service with retirement in July 2012.