NASIRIYAH, Iraq, (AP) — American bomb disposal experts in Iraq say few people understood what they did.
Not any more.
Now, the U.S. military’s explosive experts are basking in their job’s newfound fame after the Iraq war drama “The Hurt Locker” took home the best picture prize at Sunday’s Academy Awards in Hollywood.
But the specialists still have to explain they are not all like the film’s arrogant, adrenaline-junkie hero.
Set in the summer of 2004, the movie tells the fictional story of an elite U.S. Army bomb squad that has 38 days to go before its members can leave Baghdad. Under enormous pressure, since one false move can kill them and everyone around them, they are itching to get the job done and head home.
Enter Staff Sgt. William James, who’s either a swaggering, brilliant, bomb disposal expert, or an egomaniacal showoff — perhaps a bit of both. The character and the screenplay were inspired by the screenwriter’s own experience while he was embedded with such a squad in 2004.
But James’ character earned mixed reviews from bomb experts in Iraq attached to the 4th Brigade, 1st Armored Division.
“That guy was more of a run and gun cowboy type, and that is exactly the kind of person that we’re not looking for,” said Tech. Sgt. Jeremy Phillips, a team leader in Iraq’s eastern Maysan province.
Phillips, 30, from Fayetteville, North Carolina, called the movie’s portrayal of a bomb expert “grossly exaggerated and not appropriate.”
Airman 1st class Stephen Dobbins said such swagger would put a whole team at risk.
“Our team leaders don’t have that kind of invincibility complex, and if they do, they aren’t allowed to operate,” said Dobbins, 22, of Paulden, Arizona, one of many Air Force experts who have been flown in to back up Army explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) team operations. “A team leader’s first priority is getting his team home in one piece.”
But that doesn’t mean the movie doesn’t have its fans among bomb disposal experts serving in Iraq.
“While it was sexed up quite a bit, I really enjoyed it,” said Tech Sgt. William Adomeit, 31, of Las Vegas, Nevada. Adomeit saw the movie for the first time at his base in the southern Iraqi town of Nasiriyah.
Other than the best picture prize, the movie earned five more Oscars, including best director honors for Kathryn Bigelow — the first woman in the 82-year history of the Academy Awards to earn Hollywood’s top prize for filmmakers.
The movie’s title can mean different things — from GI slang for severe injury to a place no one wants to go, to a tricky, locked-in space a bomb expert finds himself in when a blast goes off.
Most bomb technicians accuse the movie of taking cinematic liberties that would never occur in a war zone, such as hunting bomb-makers down dark alleys alone, or riding around Baghdad unescorted by U.S. Army vehicles.
“The one vehicle going out by itself, that would not be realistic at all,” said Senior Airman Katie Hamm, 23, of Raleigh, North Carolina.
Six years after the film takes place, bombings remain the primary threat to Iraqis. Bomb disposal teams are still finding weapons caches and responding to rocket attacks, but the nature of their mission has changed dramatically since 2004, when the film takes place.
With the U.S. military preparing to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq by September, American EOD teams are teaching Iraqis to do a job American technicians usually spend years training for.
This new task moves American bomb technicians from the field into the classroom, where they pass on their knowledge to Iraqis who will take over the high-risk job.
“We weren’t really trained to be teachers necessarily, or advisers,” said Staff Sgt. Andrew Krueger, 24, of Greeley, Colorado. “It’s something you kind of have to learn how to do as you go.”
Collecting intelligence on bomb-makers is one duty of explosive experts’ that hasn’t ebbed over the years — but trophies from disposed bombs are not exactly souvenirs you can take home.
The movie’s lead character, played by actor Jeremy Renner, keeps bomb parts under his bed as keepsakes of the bombs that nearly killed him. In the real world, he would be accused of withholding evidence.
American bombs technicians take care to preserve pieces of bombs so they can use that intelligence to track down and identify bomb-makers.
“Each bomb maker has his own way of doing things, it’s like a hard-wired routine — they all have a signature, they all use a certain kind of tape, or they use a certain kind of battery,” said Phillips.
Reality is at odds with the movie when it comes to the film’s iconic bomb suit. Most of the time, it sits unused on a shelf in the teams’ vehicles. Even the robots — the workhorses of bomb-disposal teams — rarely see action nowadays in Iraq since the Americans use them only when called in for a response to a planted bomb.
The explosives experts say they never go for the suit first but use it as a last resort, preferring to do everything as remotely and safely as possible. So the movie’s idea that they show up every day and throw on the suit first thing is unusual, they said.
But one thing the movie got down pat, the experts in Iraq say, is a bomb disposal expert’s love for the adrenaline rush of a job well done. Now, with improved security across Iraq, their missions are rare.
“If we’re slow, and nothing’s going on, it means something is going right,” said Dobbins.