Sgt. James England disarms bombs for a living
During his mission in Iraq, when a roadside bomb was found in Baghdad it was Sgt. James England Jr.'s job to respond.
England, who grew up in Madras, has been an explosives ordnance disposal technician (EOD) with the Army for 10 years, dealing directly with the bombs others hope never to encounter.
Last week, he was on leave in Madras visiting his parents James and Carolyn England before shipping out in September for his next assignment in Afghanistan.
Shrugging off the danger of his job, England said he had a boring military desk job before and he loves this work. "We've got the best job in the Army. We get to go around and blow stuff up," he joked.
His mother, however, admitted his occupation makes her nervous. "When he came back, I said, `I want to count all your fingers and toes,'" she said.
England joined the Army 19 years ago and has actually been in Iraq three times: in 1991 during Desert Storm, in 2002 during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and again in 2005.
During the last mission, England was awarded a Bronze Star for his exceptional work while safeguarding the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
"My EOD team was the only one at the embassy and we got a lot of calls. Some were real and some were hoaxes. Through intelligence, we learned that terrorists were probing the embassy for a major attack. But through our actions and what they saw watching us, they decided they couldn't do their attack and it was canceled," England said, explaining what led to the Bronze Star being awarded.
As the team leader, England said he worked in two- to three-man bomb defusing teams, in Baghdad, and later in Sadre City and Taji.
Besides safeguarding the embassy, his team was responsible for disarming countless roadside bombs and saving hundreds of lives in the process. They also found 1,000 pounds of explosives in caches that had been hidden by insurgents for later use.
Suicide bombers were the most nerve-racking thing he had to deal with. "One Iraq holiday, when a lot of civilians were gathered, a bunch of suicide bombers blew themselves up and I had to disarm a bomber that had been shot by Iraqi police," England related.
Disgusted by that incident of random violence, he said he had a bad attitude when he went to work the next day and got a call that some unstable explosives had been found in a field behind an Iraqi police station south of Sadr City.
To get to the field, his team had to walk through a yard next to the police station where a group of kids were playing.
As they approached England said, "A little girl ran up and grabbed my hand and looked up and smiled at me the whole way. I found out she spoke English and she helped me get everyone away while we exploded the material."
After it was over, he thanked her by giving her his ink pen. "She was so happy, and her dad came over and shook my hand. It was one of the biggest thank yous I ever got from anybody," he said, noting his foul mood melted.
"That changed my attitude. From that day on, that's what I was there for -- that little girl and so the next generation can grow up and lead normal lives," England stated.
England said most Iraqi people are friendly and things are not as bad as they are portrayed by American media.
"(Media images) are not the whole story over there. We kept a big box of candy in our truck and were really popular with most of the kids. And adults would come up and want to shake your hand," he said of the Baghdad area, adding, "Most Iraqi people are just like you and me. They just want to go to work and live regular lives."
In April of 2005, when he returned to the United States, England was promoted to sergeant first class, and has since become a platoon sergeant, in charge of his EOD team and two others.
While in the States, EOD units provide support to the secret service by traveling with the president and other dignitaries to secure areas and "make sure they don't get blown up," he said.
Over the years, his job has taken him all over the world. He's traveled to foreign countries with Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, President Bush and other dignitaries, has worked in Panama and Grenada cleaning up old or leftover ordnance, and was stationed in Germany.
"The work comes in spurts and I'm gone from home a lot of times," he said of his assignments.
Right now England is stationed at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida, and has another week's leave to spend with his wife, Tayna, and kids, Amber, 16, Brett, 14, Dyer, 14, and Kara, 11, before heading to Alabama to train for his one-year Afghanistan mission.
England said things are a lot slower in Afghanistan than Iraq, and the Army is doing a lot of humanitarian work.
"But, they have tons of military ordnance (for EODs to dispose of) because they've been fighting over there forever," he said.
He heard of another EOD team that was called to a dangerous situation in a farmer's field. "The guy had built a fence with live rockets as the fence posts," England laughed. After dismantling the rocket-ladened fence, the EOC team built a wooden fence to take its place.
To people in the Madras area, England said, "We appreciate everybody's support, and my heart and condolences go out to the Tucker family," referring to Thomas Tucker of Madras who was killed in Iraq this June.