4 years ago

Meet the Alabama Marine who did seven harrowing tours of duty disarming bombs


(Audio above: Retired Marine Matt Pierce discusses his combat experience on Yellowhammer Radio with Cliff Sims)

Alabama-based Marine Matt Pierce did a total seven combat tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan before retiring from active service in 2012. He is an expert dog handler and explosive ordinance disposal technician (EOD Tech), meaning Pierce was often called upon to disarm improvised explosive devices in hostile territory.

“You can only screw up once, that’s the rule,” Pierce said during a recent Yellowhammer Radio interview. “You screw up once and you’re a pink mist. That’s just how it operates.”

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Pierce’s job led to him enduring numerous serious blast injuries in 2010 and 2011 and made him well known in combat medical circles as a result of a VA Hospital study on the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and battlefield concussions.

“The Boston VA was running a program on PTSD and traumatic brain injury and they were looking for somebody that had experienced multiple concussions, that had been exposed to a lot of horrific things,” he recalls. “By the grace of God I’ve been lucky enough not to be cooked by (a bomb), but with all my concussions I was the perfect candidate for the study and the story got picked up by USA Today and they ran with it back in 2012.”

Here’s how USA Today described Pierce’s role in the study:

Medical technician Marge Ahlquist straps a blood-pressure cuff around Matt Pierce’s left bicep, the one with the wrap-around Arabic script tattoo he got after his combat tour in 2006. Translated, it reads, “For those I love I sacrifice.”

(…)

For the next several hours, researchers will take a medical history from Pierce and administer a regimen of tests…

He will be asked to detail each blast he survived that left him with a mild traumatic brain injury — the time three artillery rounds detonated under his armored vehicle, blowing out the engine and leaving him briefly unconscious; and the time he was pulling a disarmed improvised explosive device, or IED, out of the ground and a secondary booby trap detonated, knocking him off his feet.

“I never remember the sound,” he says.

Then there is that day in 2007 in Iraq. He and a close friend, Sgt. Justin Noyes, were on either side of a road moving a barbed-wire barrier in preparation for disarming a buried bomb when Noyes stepped on another IED no one saw, and Pierce saw his friend blown apart.

He will explain to a psychologist about graduating from EOD school in 2004 with Noyes and two other Marines. How they grew close. And how Pierce is the only survivor.

“A lot of bad things happened to really good people,” he explains later.

He will talk about the nightmares, vivid images in his mind of the carnage he witnessed after suicide bombers detonated explosives and dozens of civilians died, many of them children he and other Marines rushed in trying to assist.

“(I’m) waking up screaming, fighting, kicking (at) nothing in the dark. It just feels like I’m re-enacting everything that happened,” he says.

EXPERIENCE AT THE VA

According to USA Today, the VA study concluded America’s newest veterans “appear to be growing old before their time. Scientists see early signs of heart disease and diabetes, slowed metabolisms and obesity — maladies more common to middle age or later.”

“I’d love to talk good about the VA because they have some great programs,” said Pierce. “But when it comes to primary care… If I went in there with a broken bone, they’d say, ‘Ok we’ll get you on a list and see you in six weeks.’ That’s an exaggeration, but it was about that bad.

Alabama has seen more than its fair share of VA scandals.

A Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System (CAVHCS) employee even took a recovering vet to a crack house in Tuskegee to buy illegal drugs and solicit a prostitute, but was still employed by the VA over a year after the events occurred.

An internal investigation also found the employee to be guilty of a wide range of other infractions, including “patient abuse, misuse of government vehicles, filing false overtime requests and multiple ethics violations.” But according to the CAVHCS employee directory, the individual is still employed by the VA. It is unclear if any administrative or criminal action was ever taken against the individual.

“All the VA employees are locked in so they don’t have to work as hard,” says Pierce. “They don’t have to go further because they can’t be fired.”

PIERCE’S WORK IN THE PRIVATE SECTOR

Pierce’s work is much less stressful now, but he continues to put his skills to use for Alabama-based defense contractor Xtreme Concepts and its dog-handling operation IK9, which is working on a new partnership with the VA that Pierce is particularly excited about.

“The program right now is under study, but we are training service dogs and emotional support dogs to be paired with veterans and increase their mobility and happiness in life,” he said. “So far the study is going great… The VA will give us people to pair with an emotional support or service dog.”

He is also working with the non-profit First Foundation.

“We’re taking dogs coming back from combat and placing them with former military or first responders that may have psychological or physical disabilities,” he explained. “We try to improve the life of both the K9 and the individual. We’ve placed about 30 dogs in the last several months.”

CHOCOLATE MOUNTAIN AND SCRAPPERS

Pierce laughs off his short-term memory loss, and it’s clear from his Yellowhammer Radio interview that his sense of humor has remained intact in spite of the tumultuous past decade.

One of his favorite stories involves Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range, a half-million acre aerial bombing range used by the U.S. Navy and Marines for practice. At some point each year there is a month-long training exercise during which hundreds of planes drop thousands of explosive devices on practice runs.

At the conclusion of the exercise, the military closes the range for about three weeks and sends out the EOD techs to detonate any unexploded bombs, and, according to Pierce, “have campfires and things like that.”

Unbeknownst to Pierce and his colleagues, individuals living in the local area were sneaking onto the range to steal the aluminum off of the bombs to sell them for scrap metal.

Pierce recalls what happened next:

The problem was they were coming into what’s called a submunitions range. To sum it up quickly: A jet drops a payload, it opens up, and anywhere between 21 and 60 baseball-sized submunitions fall. These are touch sensitive. If the wind picks up, these go off. You don’t want to go in there. We won’t even go in there if the wind is over five miles per hour. Well, these guys are going in there and picking them up like nobody’s business.

So I get a phone call that I have to go to a post blast stateside. That never happens. An explosive device had detonated somewhere in Arizona and I had to respond to it…

So I go up there and I’m looking — it’s at somebody’s trailer in the middle of nowhere — and I look in the back the guy’s pickup truck and it’s all these submunitions. I physically won’t pick one up and he’s got 100-150 of them just riding around in the back of his vehicle! You hit a bump and they could go off.

So my only course of action is to blow it where it sits. I bring out my demo bag, line up the C-4, and I took out his pickup truck, I took out his house! There was no other safe way to remove them.

THE RUSH OF WALKING UP ON AN UNDETONATED BOMB

Pierce still vividly remembers the first time was called upon to disarm a roadside bomb, and the self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie says he and his fellow Marine EOD Techs usually did it without wearing the Michelin Man-style bomb suit often seen on TV and in movies.

“Because it is so hot out there, we don’t wear the bomb suit,” he explained. “Other branches use it, the Marine Corp was given the option to use it or not use it. The bomb suit is great against the blast pressure, but horrible against fragmentation. It would cut right through it, so it’s kind of pointless.”

Here’s how Pierce describes the feeling of walking up on an armed explosive device:

But walking up on it, my first thought is, what kind of initiator is this? Is it command wire, is it cell phone, is this victim actuated, like a pressure strip or something like that?

Basically I’ll work a helix — start from the outside and work my way in making circles checking for secondary devices, searching for trip wires or a command wire that’s in the ground that may lead to this device. Then I’m also carrying a system that blocks radio signals. Then it just comes down to, do they have an anti-tamper device in it? That would mean they are all about killing first responders, either the first guys on scene, or they love getting us EOD Techs…

Honestly, walking down on an IED, 99 out of 100 times, I’m just focused. It doesn’t bother me. I do what I have to do, then when I get back to the truck I dang near poop myself. That’s when the adrenaline wears off and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, what just happened?” After multiple IED, over and over and over again, you just kind of become immune to it.

Ledbetter: Alabama’s teachers are standing tall with return to classroom instruction

All of the personality traits, values and life lessons that we carry with us as adults were shaped and instilled in us by the people we encountered in childhood. For many, the strongest influences came from our schoolteachers, who opened new worlds of knowledge and taught us skills that remain with us today.

Consider for a moment the music teacher who taught you to play an instrument, the math teacher who led you to a love of numbers, the history teacher who brought to life the stories of our nation’s past, or the English teacher who inspired you to love great literature.

Teaching is one of the few professions whose impact continues to last for decades after the individual who does the job retires.

As many children across Alabama are preparing to return to school even while the coronavirus pandemic continues, teachers have never been more important or vital or deserving of our deepest appreciation.

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Returning to brick-and-mortar school instruction will, hopefully, restore a sense of normalcy to our children’s lives in these decidedly abnormal times.

A return to the classroom and even resuming the online instruction that some are adopting will also help our students maintain their education progress and continue the important social and emotional development that interaction with their peers and instructors allows.

Our English second language learners will receive the communication skills they need in order to better assimilate, and many low-income students will receive the healthy nourishment from the school lunch program that might be denied them at home.

Given the current circumstances and environment, I recognize that some of our public school employees may have a sense of trepidation about returning to school, and that is certainly understandable. Wearing a face mask to do something as simple as shopping for groceries, paying for gas or walking into a restaurant offers all of us a constant reminder that COVID-19 is a very contagious virus.

But our teachers and educators are setting their concerns aside and answering the call to duty.

I know that Gov. Kay Ivey, State Superintendent Eric Mackey and the staff of the Alabama Department of Education took great care in developing the “Roadmap to Reopening Alabama Schools,” and local school boards are being equally diligent in creating and implementing their own safety guidelines.

The importance of sanitization will be stressed more than ever before, and billions of dollars made available to Alabama through the federal CARES Act will help ensure that any resources that are needed to reopen schools safely will be readily available.

As the majority leader of the Alabama House, I can also offer assurances that the legislature stands ready to pass legislation or make appropriations that are necessary to ease the return to classroom instruction once we are in session.

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted an even deeper appreciation of the frontline heroes who have remained on the job and provided the most essential services throughout the crisis.

Doctors and nurses in our hospitals and health clinics; grocery store and other retail employees; law enforcement officers, emergency workers and firefighters; postal workers; sanitation workers; restaurant personnel; and those in dozens of other professions are among those who continued working even when times were their toughest.

I am proud to say that the teachers, school nurses, administrators and support personnel in Alabama’s schools also rank high upon the list of those who have stood tall, and their already invaluable service to our state is even more important to students and parents in each of our cities, towns and crossroads today.

Helen Keller, one of Alabama’s most inspirational figures, once said, “It was my teacher’s genius, her quick sympathy, her loving tact which made the first years of my education so beautiful. It was because she seized the right moment to impart knowledge that made it so pleasant and acceptable to me.”

As I close by wishing everyone a safe, happy and healthy school year, we would all do well to keep Helen Keller’s words in mind.

State Rep. Nathaniel Ledbetter (R-Rainsville) serves as majority leader in the Alabama House of Representatives

3 hours ago

Alabama Ag Commissioner Pate gives update on unsolicited seed packages from China, urges public to stay ‘vigilant’

MONTGOMERY — Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries (ADAI) Commissioner Rick Pate gave an update Monday afternoon on the spate of seed packets from China that people across Alabama have received in recent weeks despite never having ordered anything.

Pate said that after the state seed labs had performed tests on the packets they had collected from individuals across Alabama, and none of them proved to be dangerous.

“Right at 50% of them proved be some kind of weed flower … 41% were vegetables, and 9% were herbs … we found no noxious compounds, no dangerous compounds,” said Pate at the event.

However, he warned, “They might send out the first seeds that weren’t treated with anything, have a sense of security come about, and then later send something out that could be harmful.”

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The commissioner further urged members of the public to refrain from planting any unsolicited seeds and continue to report them to the Department.

“At the very least something criminal has gone on here,” stated Pate, referencing laws that prevent seeds from being moved across state lines without being inspected by the relevant agencies.

Pate said his department had collected 252 seed samples as of Monday morning.

A total of 385 individuals in all but 11 of Alabama’s 67 counties have received one of the packets, according to information relayed at the press conference. State workers will be collecting the remaining samples soon.

(AL. Dept. of Ag/Contributed)

“Because we’ve got such a good food and drug lab, because we’ve got such a good seed lab, we knew this was inside of our comfort zone,” Pate said of the decision to conduct the seed tests in-house as opposed to shipping them to the federal government.

Andy Tipton, division director of Food Safety and Ag Compliance, said that 25 states had reported similar seed packets showing up at consumers’ doorsteps. He added that the ADAI was turning over all relevant info to the FBI, who were monitoring the situation.

Pate further told Yellowhammer News that one of the prevailing theories remained that the cause was an internet seller running a scam to artificially inflate their customer numbers and create opportunities for fake reviews.

He ended his press conference saying, “We have no idea the reason for this happening, but it doesn’t mean we can stop being vigilant.”

Any Alabamian still receiving one of the packets can report it here.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95

4 hours ago

Alabama basketball star John Petty returning for senior season

University of Alabama star forward John Petty, Jr. will return for his senior season, the player announced on Monday.

The Huntsville native was a second-team All-SEC honoree this past season, after leading the Southeastern Conference in three-point percentage.

Petty was considering entering the 2020 NBA Draft, however he decided to return for a final season in Tuscaloosa after evaluating his prospects. Another college season could see Petty lock down his chance at being a first-round pick.

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Tide head coach Nate Oats released a statement on Monday afternoon celebrating Petty’s return.

“It’s great to have John back for his senior year,” Oats said. “He is certainly one of the best, if not the best, shooters in the country which is extremely important to us with how we play.”

“He’s made it clear that it’s his goal to become a first round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and we’re going to work with him to make sure he’s in the best position to reach that goal. Let’s get to work!” the coach concluded.

Follow along with the Bama men’s basketball program here.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

4 hours ago

State of Alabama, University of Alabama System officials unveil GuideSafe app aiming to keep schools virus-free

Key figures from Alabama’s government and university systems joined to announced the new GuideSafe platform that bills itself as the key for students to safely return to college campuses amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The GuideSafe platform will help the state fulfill its promise to test every single college student before they return to campus, and the platform will provide a space for ongoing health monitoring throughout the semester.

The unveiling took place over videoconference, where State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, University of Alabama System Chancellor Finis “Fess” St. John and other key players detailed the importance of GuideSafe to the upcoming semester.

GuideSafe was developed by the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) in conjunction with the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) and tech company MotionMobs. It will be provided to any educational institution in the state that wishes to use it.

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Governor Kay Ivey apportioned some of Alabama’s CARES Act funds for the development of GuideSafe and the universal free testing for college students.

St. John on Monday praised Ivey’s “decisive action to provide funding” for the testing initiative and other campus reopening measures.

(Click for higher resolution version that will open in new tab)

GuideSafe will be accessible via app on smartphones and tablets and via web browser on any computer. Students will be invited to join the platform in the coming weeks.

One of the key features of the GuideSafe app is that it will track the location of students via smartphone and then inform them if they have come into contact with someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus.

“This new app – using Google- and Apple-led technology and created by UAB faculty, staff and MotionMobs for the people of Alabama – is a necessary tool in our effort to return to college campuses safely this fall,” said UAB President Ray Watts.

The app also allows students and faculty to report symptoms as they experience them, and get directed to a nearby testing site if necessary.

“The combination of these tools enables every participating college, university and K-12 school to engage faculty, students and staff regarding on-going monitoring of symptoms, exposure and risks of acquiring COVID-19,” said Sue Feldman, professor and director of graduate programs in health informatics at UAB.

A general factsheet on GuideSafe is available here.

Watch:

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95

4 hours ago

Trump fires TVA board chair after outsourcing uproar

President Donald Trump on Monday announced that he was removing the Tennessee Valley Authority’s board chairman, Skip Thompson, an Alabamian.

Thompson, a resident of Decatur, is the president and CEO of Corporate Billing, a subsidiary of Birmingham-based National Bank of Commerce. He previously served as the president and CEO of both First American Bank in Decatur and First Commercial Bank in Huntsville, as well as serving on the board of Decatur Utilities.

Trump appointed Thompson to the TVA board in 2018. He was elected chairman of the board last year.

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The president on Monday cited TVA’s plan to outsource information technology jobs overseas as the reason for firing Thompson and one other board member. Trump warned the other board members that they would be next if the outsourcing continued. The president also called on them to replace the organization’s CEO, who Trump said was making far too much money.

The president added, “Let this serve as a warning to any federally appointed board: If you betray American workers, you will hear two words: ‘You’re fired.’”

The TVA is the electricity provider for much of North Alabama. Self-described as “a corporate agency of the United States,” it is regulated at the federal level and not under the jurisdiction of the Alabama Public Service Commission.

Congressman Mo Brooks (AL-05) applauded Trump’s move on Monday.

“TVA fires AMERICANS & hires cheap foreign labor,” the North Alabama congressman tweeted. “TVA executive salaries EXORBITANT. TVA=NO competition, unlike private sector execs who compete to earn profits to earn pay… WAY TO GO [President Trump]!”

RELATED: Doug Jones: ‘The TVA has lost its way’

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn