CAMP LEATHERNECK, Helmand province, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan --
“I thought it was just another day on the 45-minute drive to get to the location. My teammate and I were coming up with a plan of attack,” said Winnfield, La., native Staff Sgt. Tony Palomo. “I never thought I’d be the one to set off the (improvised explosive device).”
The Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician currently attached to 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division (Forward) described the ride through Helmand province to a location where an IED was found. He responded to the call when the unit found a suspected IED, but was later evacuated from the scene with injuries he sustained after accidently stepping on a secondary IED while on his way to the primary one.
The homemade bombs are still the enemy’s most effective weapon in the war on terror. Almost 60 percent of all coalition forces wounded or killed in Afghanistan since the start of the war in 2001 have been due to IEDs, according to a May 2011 report from the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization.
Palomo knows the feeling of an IED blast all too well. He said he felt just fine when he arrived on the scene May 8, where the possible roadside bomb was found. The infantry Marines already had a 360 degree perimeter surrounding the danger area.
“I try to press upon the Marines to back away once they find something,” said Palomo, who attended the University of Florida. “That’s what we’re here for and are specifically trained to deal with -- these kinds of explosives.”
The squad leader for the Marines on patrol showed Palomo to the IED. Little did Palomo know the path they were taking toward the area was unsafe.
“As I didn’t know where it was, I was kind of just following along. I was under the impression that (the squad leader) had been up and down the path a couple of times and it had been cleared,” explained Palomo. “Obviously I was incorrect about that because about 50 yards from where the initial IED was, I detonated a secondary, smaller charge.”
The charge was strong enough to knock him off his feet, but he remained conscious. His heart began to race and hands began to shake. A ringing sensation filled his ears.
“It was like instinct. Marine training had to kick in at that point,” said Palomo. “(Training) was actually my first thought. I started to reach for a tourniquet because I was like, ‘Man, if I’m missing anything, I’d better put a tourniquet on it quick.’”
He quickly assessed the situation and thought he was alright. All Palomo noticed were a few rips in his uniform, sprinkles of blood and scraped hands as he hopped right back on his feet and pressed on. The 31-year-old told the squad leader, who was untouched by the detonation, to stay back as Palomo swept through the path and continued on with the mission.
Palomo came back to his vehicle to grab a tool and the Navy corpsman, trained in combat medicine, said he needed medical attention and had to be medically evacuated.
“I honestly thought it wasn’t that bad until the ‘doc’ noticed all the blood on my trousers,” explained Palomo. “And it wasn’t because of the amount of blood I was losing, but because of the shrapnel that hit the lower half of my body.”
Abrasions, cuts and bruises covered a big portion of his left leg and parts of his left arm. He actually had a piece of fragmentation lodged in his right leg.
“I was more disappointed in myself than anything, because I knew my teammate was now going to have to finish the job on his own,” said Palomo.
When his partner did complete the mission and conducted a post-blast analysis, he concluded the entire mixture of the bulk explosive did not detonate. Palomo said that’s pretty much what saved his life.
“Had it all gone off, I probably wouldn’t be standing here now,” added Palomo, who’s been on seven deployments, four of them in combat zones.
Palomo received medical care for his injuries and spent a couple weeks in recovery, but it wasn’t his injuries he was worried about.
He said the worst part about the recovery process was waiting to get back to the Marines he was supporting. The fear of encountering another IED blast upon his return doesn’t faze him at all.
“Obviously, I’ll be a bit more cautious when I pick the paths I’m taking as I go about my business, but I think my teammate is more worried about me than I am,” he said jokingly. “As far as getting hit again goes, well, that’s just a risk that comes along with the job.”
Today, the motorcycle enthusiast is back with 3rd Battalion.
“There’s no reason for me to be anywhere else than here, out with the rest of the Marines on the battlefield,” said Palomo. “I’ve got five months left out here and I want to finish them off with the Marines I started with.”
Dallas native Chief Warrant Officer 2 Christopher West said he has no doubt his Marine will return to full strength.
“Staff Sergeant Palomo is a trusted team leader of mine that I have full confidence in to represent me, the command and his teammate alike,” said the Regimental Combat Team 8 EOD platoon commander. “He’s capable of handling anything, and the fact he decided to come back out as soon as possible just shows his personality and love for the job.”
Palomo attributes much of his passion for the EOD job field to his father Kenneth Palomo, an Edgewater, Fla., resident who inspired him to become an EOD technician. Mr. Palomo also served as an EOD Marine for 12 years and said he is extremely proud of his son.
“He’s always been an outstanding individual,” said Mr. Palomo, who graduated EOD School in 1986. “I know what happened was a mistake, but I’m just glad he’s okay.”
Their father-son relationship has only grown stronger through shared experiences. Six-year-old Palomo was able to pin on his father’s badge at his EOD graduation in 1986. Twenty years later, 26-year-old Palomo asked his father to pin his badge on at his own EOD graduation. Mr. Palomo said he always knew that day would come since his son was a little boy.
“At age 8, he had his own little pair of ‘cammies’ that he’d wear,” explained Mr. Palomo. “He’d go everywhere with me, and he loved every minute of it.”
Palomo also remembers those days and said it’s why he always wanted to be an EOD technician.
“After being in the reserves for six years, I decided to do a lateral move to EOD,” said Palomo, who was an Assault Amphibian Vehicle crewman before changing his military occupational specialty to EOD. “I knew a good amount about EOD because my father used to be an EOD Marine, and it just seemed like the right thing to do. It was something I wanted to do and was very interested in because of him.”
Palomo’s extensive knowledge has helped him successfully disable numerous IEDs and teach the 3rd Battalion Marines how to counter the IED threat.
“He’s able to operate confidently, independently support more than 100 Marines, be the sole subject matter expert in (our unit), and do his job well,” added West. “His tactical experience is irreplaceable, and I’m just happy to have him back.”
Editor’s note: 2nd Marine Division (Forward) serves as the ground combat element of Regional Command (Southwest) and works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Force and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces, and enabling ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its area of operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.