MARINE CORPS AIR STATION YUMA, Ariz. --
When Yuma's Marine Wing Support Squadron 371’s explosive ordnance disposal team returned from a deployment to Afghanistan in October, they were one man down.
The Marine, Staff Sgt. Alonzo Smith, MWSS-371 EOD technician, made an unexpected early trip home after being severely wounded while attempting to defuse an improvised explosive device.
Smith responded to a call from a British infantry unit to disable an IED near Forward Operating Base Gibraltar in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, May 26.
Smith, along with two more MWSS-371 EOD technicians and a corpsman, loaded their gear into a helicopter and headed for their third call of the day.
As Smith, 26, the mission team leader, approached the IED to disarm it, the pressure plate-activated IED detonated, causing severe injuries to his face, chest and right hand.
“My whole body contracted,” said Smith, a native of Inglewood, Calif. “I floated in the air for a second then hit the ground. I tried to reach for my weapon, but couldn’t, and I couldn’t see either.”
Smith’s teammates rushed to his location and sprang into action to save his life.
“Seeing your buddy go down right in front of you is really difficult,” said Staff Sgt. David Crosby, MWSS-371 EOD technician. “It was scary. We were treating his wounds and calling for a casualty evacuation, but it didn’t really set in until it all calmed down. It makes you think of what you have back home.”
The event was traumatic, not only physically for Smith, but emotionally for the rest of his team.
“It was a bad day,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Mark Vargas, hospital corpsman. “I was pretty far away, at least a couple hundred yards, when it happened. The last thing I thought was that it was one of our guys, but when I turned the corner, I saw (Staff Sgt. Jared Mason, MWSS-371 EOD technician) kneeling over Smitty. It was chaotic. I wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone.”
Vargas was awarded a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal for his heroic actions that unfortunate day. Vargas rushed more than 150 meters through a wheat field that had not been cleared to provide lifesaving treatment to Smith.
After stabilizing Smith, the team began to carry him back to FOB Gibraltar. A British sergeant major met the team at the road with an all-terrain vehicle and trailer, said Vargas.
Smith was eventually flown back to the United States, and hospitalized at the National Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Md., where be began his long road to recovery.
The event brought the harsh realism of the dangers EOD technicians face into the minds of the rest of the team.
“It makes you think about your job,” said Sgt. Joshua Laudermilk, MWSS-371 EOD technician. “What we do is really dangerous, but when you see how many lives it saves, risking yourself is worth it.”
The rest of the team kept up on Smith’s recovery progress while they were still deployed. The families kept in contact with Smith’s wife and relayed the information to the team in Afghanistan.
“The team never ceased to amaze me with their professionalism and perseverance,” said Master Gunnery Sgt. Carl Holden, MWSS-371 EOD staff noncommissioned officer in charge. “When one of your guys gets hurt, it’s tough emotionally. You have to push through with the mission and maintain focus.”
For much of the team, returning to Yuma and seeing Smith was a relief.
“Coming home and seeing Smith up and around was healing for me,” said Crosby. “Other than my wife, he was the first person I wanted to see.”
“We lost a lot of techs from other teams out there, it was good to see him survive,” said Staff Sgt. Thomas Smythe, MWSS-371 EOD technician.
Smith was also relieved to see the rest of his team return home safely.
“I don’t have to worry about them anymore,” said Smith. “My boys are back home.”
Smith is a fighter, he hasn’t given up, and he won’t, said Holden. He has returned to a limited duty status to help train other Marines and ensure they learn from his experience.
“As an EOD technician, we all accept the fact that this can happen in the blink of an eye,” said Smith. “You don’t expect an IED to go off and live, let alone keep all of your appendages. I feel very lucky. I want to show that you can still carry on, even after you are injured.”
Smith was awarded the Purple Heart while he was hospitalized in Bethesda. The medal was presented to him in a ceremony attended by President Barack Obama, Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James Conway and Sgt. Maj. of the Marine Corps Carlton Kent.
“The commandant told me he’d always have a place for me in the Corps, even if it wasn’t in EOD,” said Smith. “But I plan on staying an EOD technician.”