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The lucky one: An EOD tech’s journey back to Afghanistant

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What would you consider a defining moment in your life? Would it be the moment something good or bad happens? Well, just imagine this: you are on a foot patrol, carefully scanning with your head on swivel, and your soldiers are following behind you. Then "BOOM!" everything is changed in an instant.

That’s what happened to Staff Sgt. Steven Wentzell less than two years ago in Kandahar province, Afghanistan.

Wentzell, an explosive ordnance disposal technician assigned to the 725th EOD from Fort Drum, N.Y., finds himself back in the country where he almost lost his life. He’s now training the Afghan National Army explosive ordnance disposal teams lifesaving techniques, tactics and procedures that will help secure a safer nation against enemy fighters.

The Army wasn’t always in his career path, even though he is the grandchild of a Medal of Honor nominee. At first, Wentzell was simply looking for something that would give him a marketable skill for a civilian career. However, he joined the and actually enjoyed military life.

“I wanted something more stable. My grandfather was in the Army Air Corps in World War II. He was one of the men to drop the first bombs during the war, then he was a POW [prisoner of war] in the Korean War,” said Wentzell.

“He was definitely steering me in that direction, but I only wanted to do four years and get out. So I talked over my choice with my wife and she agreed. Three days later I was in the Army,” he said.

Wentzell originally chose to become a heating, ventilation and air conditioning, or HVAC, mechanic, thinking that this profession would be a lucrative career choice. He soon realized it wasn’t the job for him.

Wentzell was later deployed, not as a HVAC mechanic, but as a motor transportation operator in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Carrying out the missions he was tasked didn’t give him the feeling he had hoped for when he joined the Army. Something was missing; the sense of excitement was not there. While on several missions, he had the opportunity to see explosive ordnance disposal technicians at work. Thinking what they were doing was cool, he attended a question-and-answer session with EOD personnel. After collecting the answers he was looking for Wentzell decided to give EOD a shot.

His curiosity sparked a new job interest, but he wasn’t sure if he wanted to continue on the path he had started. Giving EOD a chance, Wentzell completed a number of contract extensions in order to finish EOD school. Ding!

Wentzell finally found what he was looking for.

When the time came to use his EOD skills in combat, he didn’t hesitate to complete his mission. In March 2011, Wentzell was deployed to Regional Command-South, where he cleared improvised explosive devices and unexploded ordnance used to disable not only equipment on the roadways, but caused significant casualties in the region. He finally got that rush of adrenaline and excitement he had been searching for all along.

Things couldn’t get any better in his mind. He successfully disposed of numerous improvised explosive devices, unexploded ordnance, and brought each one of his soldiers back from missions safely. He knew that this was a career he wanted to pursue and with the upcoming birth a child, Wentzell re-enlisted during his deployment.

Just days after the birth of his daughter, the unthinkable happened. A flash of light, heat and a sudden jolt of energy threw his body backwards a number of feet. He’d stepped on an anti-personnel mine attached to a 25-gallon jug packed with homemade explosives. The jug never exploded.

The type of mine used in this attack is known to cause the loss of limbs and life from the impact. In the blast, Wentzell broke his tibia, fibula, heel, ankle and toes. Due to the extent of his injuries, he was medically evacuated immediately.

“When I came too, I was angry; I wouldn’t be able to keep my guys safe,” Wentzell said. “I got depressed because I was leaving my dudes. I knew I could keep them safe; I wasn’t sure about the next guy.”

“Throughout all that I do consider myself lucky. Most people wouldn’t be here or have their legs,” he added.

Although the recovery process was long and hard, it wasn’t as bad as he thought it would be. The transition from being active to having injuries that limited his movement wasn’t easy, but his determination and fighting spirit helped cut down on his recovery time.

Currently deployed to Regional Command-East, Wentzell has decided not to allow that one accident to define him. Since his arrival last July, he has been the primary partnership noncommissioned officer in charge of training the Afghan army’s EOD technicians to safely and effectively reduce the amount of IEDs and UXOs on the battlefield.

“I decided to come back here because I felt my time was cut short and I needed to do this. [If I didn’t come back] I never could have known if I could handle it,” said Wentzell.

Surprisingly, the time away gave Wentzell a fresh look to how much Afghanistan has changed. The partnership with the ANA EOD has brought a new sense of commonality.

“I’ve realized that the Afghan and coalitions forces have a common goal: a better Afghanistan,” he said.

His ability to teach and pass on very valuable information has piqued another interest: instructing.

“I hope I pass on to them the ability to safely and efficiently handle IEDs,” said Wentzell.

“Right now I’m trying to be an instructor at Fort Lee, Va., for the pre-EOD course before the actual course at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. I want to stay in the Army and hopefully one day become a command sergeant major,” said Wentzell.

For those who have been injured in combat and still want to serve, Wentzell has this inspirational message to share.

“I really respect their decision. It’s going to be hard, and at times, extremely hard. But if you have the will and determination to continue on, you’ll be successful,” he said.

Article by Sgt. Gene Arnold, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division