The Sand Sailors

We have celebrated the courageous soldiers, airmen, and Marines who fight to secure Iraq and help establish democracy and stability for the Iraqis, but few know of the on-the-ground commitment of the Navy. When our troops find IEDs, they often turn to the Sand Sailors — electronic-warfare specialists who teach the troops how to keep terrorists from activating their bombs:

Navy Lt. Mark Dye hadn’t seen combat before a helicopter dropped him at the deadliest forward operating base for roadside bomb attacks in northern Iraq with an urgent task.

Improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, had killed 22 soldiers from the 101st Airborne at Forward Operating Base McHenry in the past seven months. Other Army units were suffering similar casualties in May 2006 and it was getting worse. Troops were finding an average of 18 roadside bombs a day.

Dye and 300 other shipboard electronic warfare specialists were charged with teaching troops how to defuse the bombs by jamming the electronic signals the insurgents used to detonate them.

“They called on a Wednesday and told me I was leaving (for Iraq) on Saturday,” said Dye, 38, who had spent his career on ships. “It was the right decision. Electronic warfare was our background, what we did it for a living.”

They called themselves “sand sailors,” and they did their job well by reducing IED fatalities at their bases. Monthly U.S. troop deaths from IEDs have dropped since reaching a high of 90 in May to 17 last month, in part because of their efforts, the military said in awarding Bronze Stars to Dye and others.

Before the arrival of the Sand Sailors, the jamming equipment provided to the Marines and the Army often went unused. The devices were complicated, and difficult to use in combat situations without extensive training. Some of them degraded under the harsh environmental conditions. Everyone knew that too many of them died to allow the situation to continue as it was, and so the Navy got into the battle far from sea.

Not all of their effort goes into training, either. Navy bomb-disposal teams have assisted in dismantling IEDs since violence peaked in Iraq. In fact, we featured one sailor who gave his life in that effort. Kevin Bewley left behind a daughter with cerebral palsy when he died in an attempt to dismantle an IED last November. Hot Air readers can contribute to McKinnzie’s ongoing medical care; her family hopes to help McKinnzie learn how to walk.