Wednesday, April 28, 2010

TOP STORY >> JHS grad goes from track to bomb finder

Leader senior staff writer

Eight years ago, Alexander Mack would have been tearing up the Jacksonville High School track most afternoons in the 800-meter run or a leg of the 3,200-meter relay.

Today, Staff Sgt. Mack can be found behind a .50-caliber machine gun atop a Humvee, walking alongside or out front looking for improvised explosive devices, helping to clear roads in Afghanistan.

“I work more or less with the bomb squad,” Mack said in a recent telephone interview. “I specialize in the demolition and clearing of IEDs and disposing of unexploded ordnance.”

Mack does not work for the actual bomb squad and is never involved in disarming bombs—just finding them and blowing them up.

“We are providing infantry and special forces the freedom to maneuver (en route) to high-profile targets,” Mack said. “We’re clearing the way for the force.”

“I’m a combat engineer,” he said. “We specialize in recon, bridge building, mobility, counter mobility and survivability. We build or breach defenses.

“Our job is to create something to get over, through or around an obstacle,” he said. “We cross-train on bomb disposal.”

If his team sees something suspicious or is warned by locals about an IED, they “robot down” to inspect, he said.

In other words, his team uses the Talon, a robot on tank tracks with a big arm and four high- definition cameras. The cameras help identify the object in question. Its claw arm can carry and place an explosive charge to blow up a suspected bomb.

Before detonating an IED, his team has to get clearance from high command.

“Sometimes we run it through the Afghan Army to make sure. If it’s close to buildings, mosques or schools, it’s especially hesitative.

“If we can move it somewhere safe and dispose of it, we will.”

Clearance can come in 15 minutes or it could take as long as a day, Mack said.

He said his work is not as dramatic as the ordnance disposal team depicted in “The Hurt Locker,” winner of the Academy Awards best picture this year.

“We’re not technically an ordinance disposal team,” Mack said, but “sometimes we roll with them.”

“I think the movie portrays the civilian population and the threat level, but it’s far from the reality that we experience.”

Mack said he thought Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 Vietnam war film “Full Metal Jacket” was more realistic in terms of basic training, interaction between soldiers, life in the unit and deploying.

While this is Mack’s first deployment to Afghanistan, he did two tours in Iraq, where he was more on the building side of the combat engineers.

Everything is pretty much the same in Afghanistan and Iraq, he said. “It’s different terrain. Last time I was in Iraq, I did vertical construction—engineering. We built buildings and supplied electrical and plumbing,” he said.

Between missions, Mack’s involved in mission prep, fueling the vehicles, taking care of weapons and testing the equipment. He makes sure the soldiers in his unit are squared away.

“It gets pretty hot,” but the living quarters are climate controlled.

Mack and the others live in dorm-like buildings with two and three men to a room. “We have air conditioning and heat and a really good dining facility,” he said.

“It’s like a high school cafeteria, with chicken steak and lobster, chicken wings, rice and gravy—it’s not home cooking, but it’s good.”

There’s an MWR room—morale, welfare and recreation—where the soldiers watch DVD’s from home. There’s a game room where “Madden Football” is popular. They also have access to an Internet cafe with phones and 40 computers and about 15 or 20 phones.

“It’s pretty cheap for a regular phone call,” he said.

“We have a gym and just got some new stuff in, like treadmills, elliptical machines, deadweights and other exercise machines.

It’s really nice.”

Security on the base is good, he said. “We have roving guards, air support, gate guards and we walk around with personal weapons.”

On patrol, they sometimes stop and interact with the civilians, he said, to “See how they feel about us—how we can help them and how we can get the enemy out.”

What does he miss about home?

“I miss my daughter and my mother’s home cooking. I miss sitting back, watching football and drinking beer.

“My daughter is in New York with her mother. She turned one on January 9 and I’m excited to get home for her second birthday.”

Mack said he’s due home by the middle of August or beginning of September.

Once home, the Army will have to give him 355 days stateside before redeployment.

Mack said he’s a University of Texas fan and also roots for the Dallas Cowboys.

“My dad was in the Air Force. He ended up retiring (as a master sergeant) in Jacksonville,” Mack said. “I went to junior high and high school there. A lot of people know me there.

“At the time I was graduating, I was looking into the military. Now I’ll probably do 20 to 30 years,” he said.

His mom, Angela Mack, now lives in Laurens, S.C., and when he’s stateside, Mack is stationed at Fort Bragg.

“I’d like to come back to Jacksonville in the future,” Mack said. “To retire, maybe coach.”