3 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.

8 hours ago

Tuberville backs Alabama legislator’s bill making murder of on-duty first responder a capital offense

Former Auburn University head football coach Tommy Tuberville is backing HB 59, the bill passed by the Alabama Senate on Thursday that would make killing an on-duty first responder a capital offense.

The bill as amended and passed by the Senate names the proposed law in honor of slain Auburn Police Department Officer William Buechner, who was shot and killed in the line of duty on Sunday night.

Sponsored by State Rep. Chris Sells (R-Greenville), HB 59 passed the House previously. The amended version goes back to the chamber for expected concurrence next week.

In a statement to Yellowhammer News, Tuberville applauded the legislature for the bill, especially thanking the Senate for the amendment in Buechner’s memory, which was put onto the legislation by State Sen. Tom Whatley (R-Auburn).

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“I commend the Alabama Senate on their bill which makes the murder of an on-duty first responder a capital offense,” Tuberville said. “Murdering a first responder in Alabama should be classified as a capital offense. Not just police officers are covered in this bill all first responders are covered!”

The bill adds on-duty first responders to the list of murder victims that constitutes a capital offense. State law already makes the murder of an on-duty law enforcement officer or prison guard a capital offense.

Note the difference between a Class A felony murder charge and a capital murder charge: capital offenses in Alabama are punishable (unless the defendant was under the age of 18 at the time of the crime) by life in prison without the possibility of parole or death. Class A felonies are punishable by 10-99 years in prison, with stricter guidelines for offenders with prior criminal convictions.

Sells’ bill would also add on-duty law enforcement officers, prison guards and first responders as victims in the list of aggravating circumstances to a capital offense. This would make the death penalty more likely in the sentencing phase of this kind of capital offense.

In HB 59, first responders are defined as emergency medical services personnel licensed by the Alabama Department of Public Health and firefighters and volunteer firefighters as defined by existing state law.

Lee County District Attorney Brandon Hughes has said he will seek the death penalty if the man charged with Buechner’s death is convicted on a capital murder charge.

Tuberville’s vocal support for the bill came the same day as Buechner’s funeral.

“Today, as Officer William Buechner is laid to rest, we celebrate his heroic life and the ultimate sacrifice he made to protect our citizens,” Tuberville emphasized.

On Friday, Tuberville also visited Auburn Police Department Officer Webb Sistrunk, who was critically wounded in the shooting that killed Buechner.

(T. Tuberville/Facebook)

“It was such an honor for me to visit with Webb Sistrunk, one of the brave Auburn police officers who was shot earlier this week,” Tuberville shared.

Tuberville with Mark Sistrunk, the officer’s father (Contributed)

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

8 hours ago

‘Our hero’: Slain Auburn officer’s neighborhood lights up blue to honor him

Neighbors of murdered Auburn Police Department Officer William Buechner are backing the blue in a very visible way, honoring the fallen hero’s life of selfless service.

As reported by WSFA, the Opelika subdivision that Buechner and his family lived in is showing their solidarity en masse.

In a moving tribute, many of the neighborhood’s homes have replaced their regular porch lights with blue lights, shining proudly in Buechner’s memory.

Tracy McDaniel is among those neighbors paying tribute to the officer and beloved community member.

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Tracy McDaniel’s home, as contributed by her. (Sally Pitts/Facebook)

McDaniels’ home is far from the exception. One photo shows an entire street the neighborhood turned blue to honor the fallen officer.

Photo by Samantha Xaysombath Smith (WSFA/Twitter)

“William was a lot of great things. A great man, friend, husband, and father, police officer, neighbor, the list goes on,” Smith explained. “His son will grow up to learn that his daddy was a hero, and we will forever remember that he was our hero too.”

Another woman in the neighborhood, who asked to remain anonymous when speaking with WSFA, said she was aware of at least 15 homes participating in the special tribute but expected that number to increase.

“We all have rallied to find each other more lightbulbs,” the woman said, “and contact those who have been out of town or may need assistance reaching their fixtures. It’s been a true team effort.”

The lights are reportedly expected to remain on at least through Saturday, the day after Buechner’s funeral.

Buechner is survived by his wife of three years, Sara; son, Henry; and step-daughter, McKenna.

“This village we speak of, he knows we will take care of Sara and the family,” Smith added. “After all, it does take a village. We back the blue.”

There has been a GoFundMe set up for Buechner’s family.

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

9 hours ago

Palmer introduces bill to stop federal funding of anti-ICE ‘sanctuary airports’

Congressman Gary Palmer (AL-06) is taking a major stand against airports in liberal strongholds that try to subvert federal law.

Palmer’s office on Thursday announced that the Birmingham-area congressman has introduced the PLANE Act, the Prohibiting Local Airports from Neglecting Enforcement Act (H.R. 2955).

In April, an airport in Seattle, Washington, banned flights known collectively as “ICE Air,” which included flights that deported illegal immigrants or transported detainees to the appropriate detention center.

If passed, the PLANE Act would withhold federal grants from airports that violate grant agreements by attempting similar action, such as imposing unreasonable conditions or restrictions on airplanes operating under ICE or other contracted government agencies.

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“Airports that refuse to cooperate with ICE should not receive federal grants,” Palmer said in a statement.

“The rule of law must not be thwarted by so-called ‘sanctuary airports,’ especially when they potentially delay the removal of people accused of crimes like human trafficking and rape,” he added. “Political posturing cannot be permitted when an airport has agreed to cooperate with law enforcement in exchange for federal funds.”

Palmer is now serving as the chair the Republican Policy Committee, which is the fifth highest ranking leadership role amongst Republicans in the United States House of Representatives.

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

10 hours ago

Rumors and Rumblings, 2nd Ed. Vol. VIII

“Rumors and Rumblings” is a regular feature on Yellowhammer News. It is a compilation of the bits and pieces of information that we glean from conversations throughout the week.

Enjoy.

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1. Hey Arnold! State Rep. Arnold Mooney (R-Indian Springs) caused a bit of a stir this week when he introduced a request to censure State Rep. John Rogers (D-Birmingham) for comments Rogers made during the chamber’s debate of the abortion bill. Numerous GOP House members were upset by the move, not so much for the substance of the request as much as for the timing — and the perceived motivation behind it.

The request came as the body was attempting to address a “ten-minute” calendar of bills. The aim of a ten-minute calendar is to quickly dispose of some of the more mundane pieces of legislation with the idea being that each member gets ten minutes to pass their bill or else the House moves on to the next item. As soon as Mooney introduced his letter of censure, the environment in the chamber became hostile, resulting in an adjournment and the end of the calendar. Dozens of members lost the opportunity, at that point at least, to pass their individual pieces of legislation, including an anti-human trafficking bill and legislation to help feed needy children in the state.

Some members wondered why Mooney waited nine days to introduce his letter. His letter was dated May 13 and not introduced until May 22. This event came on the heels of Mooney previously sending out a campaign letter to supporters questioning the ideological bearings of his fellow Republican legislators. When asked if Mooney had expressed any of these concerns to the GOP caucus at-large prior to his candidacy for the U.S. Senate, one member responded, “No. He had not.”

2. A tale of two cities. As Mooney spent the week trying to burnish the type of outsider credentials attractive to Club for Growth, another one of his colleagues spent his week in D.C. trying, presumably, to lay a similar foundation. State Rep. Will Dismukes (R-Prattville) was boots on the ground in the nation’s capital this week. Dismukes has let it be known that he was contemplating his own run for the U.S. Senate. He has done a fair job of keeping those cards close to the vest, although his trip to Washington would lend to the notion that he continues to have interest in a federal office.

The mathematical side effect of Dismukes’ absence nearly reached a heightened level of consequence. Consideration of any legislation prior to the passage of both budgets requires a 3/5 vote of those in the body voting. The lottery failed this week because it did not receive the required 3/5 threshold of those voting. In Dismukes’ absence from the state, someone voted his machine on his behalf as an abstention rather than simply not voting at all. He was the only legislator to vote to abstain. This still raises the threshold of required votes.

There were 90 total members that voted — which means the lottery needed 54 votes to proceed. It only received 53. Had someone not voted Dismukes’ machine and 89 members had voted, the lottery would still have needed 54 votes but by a much slimmer margin since 3/5 of 89 equals 53.4. That’s how close the lottery came to advancing to full consideration by the House.

3. Is broadband really a priority for members of the Alabama House? While the state legislature’s budget negotiations have been relatively smooth so far this session, there is one major issue that has seemingly popped up at the last minute.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) and Senate Finance and Taxation Education Chairman Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) put $30 million in the Senate-passed Education Trust Fund Budget for the state’s rural broadband grant program established last year by State Senator Clay Scofield’s (R-Guntersville) landmark legislation.

As the legislature continues to work on beefing up last year’s legislation through Scofield’s SB 90 this year, the House is now seemingly set to slash the broadband funding approved by the Senate. The House Ways and Means Education Committee this week approved an education budget that cut the broadband funding by 73%, dragging the total down from $30 million to only $8 million.

Proponents of the larger number have said that there is not a better use of one-time money than to expand broadband services across the state. Will Chairman Bill Poole (R-Tuscaloosa) and the House at-large work with the Senate and restore the important broadband funding?

4. Art of the Deal. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) once again proved his master negotiating skills this week, securing a crucial disaster relief package deal against seemingly insurmountable differences between the increasingly polarized factions in Washington, D.C.

This package will provide much-needed aid to many in the Yellowhammer State, including those in southeast Alabama devastated by Hurricane Michael.

Shelby bridged the gap between Republicans and Democrats in Congress, while even managing to get President Donald Trump to drop his demands to include non-disaster related earmarks in the package — a concession that was key to getting enough votes in the Senate and House. The legislation quickly passed the Senate 85-8 Thursday before a lone House member objected to its unanimous passage on Friday. The House can take the legislation up after Memorial Day on Tuesday, when it is expected to overwhelmingly pass that chamber and then be signed into law.

One keen observer told Yellowhammer News that this type of achievement will not make nearly the number of headlines it should back at home, but once again Shelby has delivered for his state as he continues to cement his legacy as “Alabama’s greatest statesman.”

10 hours ago

Alabama legislature passes bill to ensure accuracy in meat labeling

MONTGOMERY — The Alabama Senate on Thursday took steps to ensure that the definition of “meat” when applied to food labeling should only apply to products sourced from livestock on farms and ranches and harvested through processing; the bill clarifies that laboratory-grown products may not be labeled as meat, protecting Yellowhammer State consumers from potentially misleading packaging.

In a unanimous vote, the Senators passed HB 518, sponsored by State Rep. Danny Crawford (R-Athens) and State Sen. David Sessions (R-Grand Bay). The bill was previously passed by the House 97-2 and now heads to Governor Kay Ivey’s desk.

“This is proactive legislation to ensure clarity in food labeling. Around the country, there are more and more companies trying to market lab-grown products as meat, which is misleading since they aren’t derived from actual livestock production,” Sessions said in a statement.

Sessions pointed out that the nutritional and safety risks of foods developed in labs from animal cell cultures are still unknown.

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“These new lab-produced foods are, at best, synthetic meats, and their nutritional effects are unknown right now. Let’s see how the science develops through further research, and make a clear distinction between meat that is farm-raised on the one hand, and lab-based products on the other,” he advised.

The beef cattle industry represents a $2.5 billion industry in Alabama and is the number two agricultural commodity in the Yellowhammer State, with over 20,000 cattle farms. Beef continues to be a favorite protein among consumers worldwide, with exports of American beef representing an $8 billion industry by itself.

“The Alabama Cattlemen’s Association represents over 10,000 members across the state. As alternative proteins enter the marketplace in coming years, we think it is imperative that the integrity of all meat labels are protected and clear for consumers when they go to the meat case,” Erin Beasley, executive vice president of the Alabama Cattleman’s Association, commented.

She concluded, “The passage of this bill is a win-win for the consumers who love to buy beef, and the cattlemen who work hard to produce a high-quality product. We would like to thank the Alabama Legislature for the support of this bill, and especially Senator David Sessions and Representative Danny Crawford for carrying the bill.”

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn