Hero the jihadis couldn't kill: Snipers, booby traps - death was at his shoulder every minute, n
Bomb disposal expert Chris Hunter considers the job his 'vocation'
He was deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland and the Balkans
Mr Hunter joined the army at 16 and was found to have an IQ of 140
He was assigned to military intelligence before moving to officer training
He spent 11 years in bomb disposal and defused more than 100 IEDs
As always, the beating sun has quickly turned my hair white-blond. Not that I care, until a colleague takes me aside to say: ‘The Shia militia are talking about the golden-haired bomb man — and they’ve put a price on your head.’
It’s May 2004. I’ve been in Iraq for just four weeks, working round the clock to defuse increasingly sophisticated bombs and IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). Too successfully for some people’s taste, it seems.
Odd things have been happening. Whenever I turn up with my team to defuse a device, there’s always a local Iraqi film crew recording my every move. They’ve obviously been given the heads-up by the bomb-makers: get yourself down there and you’ll be able to film the bomb man being blown to pieces. Sure enough, a film crew is already in position when I turn up one evening to a call-out in Basra. Bad enough. Also watching from beyond the cordoned-off section of road is my nemesis: the sheik who heads the local Shia militia. The same militia who’ve issued a fatwa against me.
As a bomb disposal operator, I’ve trained myself to stay calm. But this time, I feel a frisson of fear.The bomb, we’ve been told by the passer-by who spotted a flashing LED, is in a cardboard box next to a row of the five-gallon tins that the Iraqis use as traffic bollards. So the first thing we do is send in a robot to try to blow it up.
The box duly disintegrates, but there could still be a bomb in the tins — so it’s now up to me to take what we call the longest walk.
I look around: on one side of the road is a forest; on the other high buildings. Perfect cover for a sniper. Plus, if there’s another bomb, I know from experience that it will be radio-controlled — so someone will be waiting to press a trigger just as I reach it.
Sometimes walking 200 metres can feel like 200 miles. I’m sweating at the start, and frankly wondering if this is where my luck runs out. Fear is my worst enemy now, unless I can turn it into the kind of adrenalin that helps me to focus. First, I deliberately empty my mind of everything irrelevant, then I concentrate on the positives.
Spread out on the road are soldiers watching for any signs of activity. Behind me, the technical team are using sophisticated jamming equipment to try to stop any radio signals. A few more steps and I’m focusing solely on the bomb: where it might be, how it might be constructed, and what the bomb-maker is trying to achieve.
Will it be just a dummy, designed to lure the golden-haired bomb man into sniper range?
As always, I’m playing a game of extreme chess with the bomber. I’m certainly not thinking about failure or death. Not even about my two daughters. I come to a halt. In front of me . . . exactly what I’ve been dreading: a fully up-and-running bomb in one of the traffic tins, complete with 10lb of plastic explosives. I can feel the drumbeat of my heart as I peer intently at a bird’s nest jumble of wires. The world recedes. Now I’m thinking of nothing else except the puzzle in the tin can. Then I carefully begin to cut into the deadly device and disassemble it. Five minutes later, it’s all over. Again I walk back, trying not to think of the cross-hairs of a sniper. The sheik melts away, no doubt disappointed. The TV crew move on.
Back in camp, the job isn’t over: all the vehicles and equipment have to be made ready for the next call-out — which could be at any time. Plus, I need to photograph the bomb components and write a detailed forensic report, which will go out to all other bomb disposal teams in Iraq.
All my senses remain fully heightened until I press ‘send’. Then there’s that familiar feeling of profound exhaustion — not so much from carrying 150lb of protective equipment as from the sheer mental effort involved in staying hyper-focused. A cup of coffee and a cigarette later, I’m almost back to normal. I’ll sleep soundly tonight — until the next call-out.
Why does anyone choose to do what has been called the most dangerous job in the world? Some do it for the adrenaline rush, some as a way of seeking atonement for darker episodes in their lives, and some out of a good old-fashioned sense of duty. In my case, it was a bit of all three.
On the face of it, I was an unlikely candidate. My father — a Hertfordshire pub landlord — had been a bomb disposal officer during World War II, and I knew how much the experience had affected him. I vividly remember watching Danger UXB on TV with him, when I was very young, and seeing his hands start to shake. His breathing would become shallow and he’d seem to be back in another world. A world of torment. My father died from leukaemia when I was 15, and after that I went off the rails for a while — drinking more than was good for me and neglecting my schoolwork. My older brother Tim, meanwhile, became a drug dealer and suffered from episodes of acute depression.
At 16, I joined the Army as a squaddie. Fortunately for me, the Army discovered I had an IQ of 140, so I was selected to work as a Russian linguist in military intelligence. This was tough academically — I never was all that good at Russian — though the disciplined structure helped me to learn. After I’d completed the course — by which time the Cold War had ended, along with the demand for Russian-speaking soldiers — I was selected for officer training at Sandhurst.
I’d been there for only a short time when I was given the news that my brother had hanged himself from a bridge. I was devastated, and utterly guilt-stricken. Why had I been so wrapped up in my life that I couldn’t hear Tim’s cries for help?
That’s what I mean about atonement: being at Sandhurst no longer seemed enough. After Tim’s death, I felt a powerful urge to make a difference in the world, and knew instinctively that I needed to take a different path. I was still in a state of crisis about my future when I was deployed to Bosnia in 1995 as part of a UN peace-keeping force.
One day, my men begged for a brief respite from their endless stream of duties, so I agreed to let them go swimming in a lake near a lovely village called Rumboci. Meanwhile, I made my way into the village with two other soldiers.
There was an eerie silence that made my short hair stand on end. Puzzled at the lack of people, we made our way into a house, where we found blood on the walls and even on a baby’s mattress. As we emerged into the street, a silver-haired lady shuffled up to us. Haltingly, she told us how a Croatian militia had tortured all the men before executing them. The women had been raped and also shot. Children had been shot or hanged.
"Knowing what lay in store for them, some of the young mothers had tied car batteries to their necks. With their babies cradled in their arms, they’d run down to the lake and jumped to their deaths."
That night in camp, we all ate our dinner in silence. Even the soup tasted of death. Back home again, I began suffering increasingly from mood swings, insomnia and recurrent nightmares. Classic signs of post-traumatic stress.
Despite my state of mind, I managed to carry out my duties when I was deployed a few months later as a troop commander to Northern Ireland. But I burned with anger, and I was getting p***** every night. I wondered if I was worthy of leading soldiers at all.
The day that will change the course of my life seems like any other in Northern Ireland: grey, drizzly and dull. I join a long, rush-hour queue of cars, waiting to get into the car park of an Army barracks.
Suddenly, there’s a pulse of brilliant white light ahead of me, and a thunderous explosion. As I sit at the steering wheel, a flaming whirlwind engulfs the car park.
A big car bomb has just exploded. I can see dozens of soldiers who’ve been blown off their feet; some are maimed and screaming. On the pavement, there are scorch marks and chunks of flesh. The air is filled with the sound of car alarms set off by the blast.
As soldiers begin shifting the wounded to the camp’s medical centre, my eye is caught by a small group of men smashing car windows with hammers. They’re meticulously searching all the remaining vehicles for secondary devices.
Too late: there’s another enormous blast. The bombers have hit the medical centre with a 400lb car bomb, with the aim of killing as many of the rescuers — and the rescued — as they can. There are charred and lacerated bodies everywhere.
There’s nothing I can do: I’m still sitting in my car, outside the barracks gate. I’ve never felt so utterly useless in my life.
The screams from the October 1996 Lisburn bombing in Northern Ireland are still resounding in my ears when it dawns on me that my entire outlook has just changed. In that instant, I come to an irrevocable decision. Whatever it takes, I want to become a bomb disposal operator — to be one of those men I’ve just witnessed calmly risking their lives to save others.
The next day, I learn that the two explosions I’ve witnessed killed a warrant officer and injured a further 31 civilians and soldiers. For the first time, I visit a compound in our camp reserved for the bomb disposal team, which is out of bounds to all but a select few. A tall warrant officer — one of just six people in Northern Ireland who does the longest walk — is surprisingly sympathetic when I tell him about my decision. But he doesn’t pull any punches.
In this game, he says, there are no second chances; each attempt to defuse a bomb ends in either total failure or complete success.
Have I got what it takes? I decide to come clean and tell him that I’m suffering from post-traumatic stress. ‘It will get easier and you’ll get over it,’ he advises. ‘But don’t tell another living soul. If the shrinks find out, you won’t make it past day one of the course.’ They don’t find out — and after 14 sleep-deprived months of training and more than 200 exams, I’m in. There are another five years of training ahead until the job becomes instinctive and intuitive, but I know I’ve finally found my vocation. At the age of 41, I understand myself much better now, so I can see at least one reason why my chosen career was such a good fit. As a boy, I’d always pushed myself to the limit but it never bothered me if I was beaten — as long as I knew I’d given it my best shot. A bomb disposal expert always has to give the job his best shot. Otherwise he goes home in a body bag. Total failure or complete success . . .
Some of the most harrowing experiences I’ve had were in Iraq, where I once witnessed a suicide bomber drive his car at full speed into a crowd and then detonate a massive bomb. Everywhere I looked, people were dead or dying.
Most of the time, though, I was uncomfortably aware that the person the bombers most wanted to kill was me.
Sometimes, the worst part wasn’t even defusing the bomb. On one memorable day, a car bomb was planted 20 metres from the door of a hospital’s A&E — left there deliberately because they knew I’d have no choice but to deal with it.
The Iraqi film crew was there, as usual. At stake was not only my life but those of all the people in A&E, who somehow had to be evacuated before the device went off.
Trouble was, the only way to reach the hospital was to go right past the bomb. So, knowing that it might be radio-controlled, with a bomber just waiting to press the trigger, I started running — faster than I ever have in my life, with my heart in my mouth. My luck was in that day. After persuading the patients and doctors to move to the back of the building, I climbed out of a side window and made it back to safety.
The bomb itself was blown up by one of our robots, shattering the hospital windows, spraying hot metal fragments everywhere and leaving a gigantic crater.
Inside, the reception area was a wreck: no one left in it could possibly have survived. We ran on to a large room, where 300 people were packed tightly together, and shouted: ‘Is anybody injured?’ An exhausted-looking Iraqi surgeon replied in perfect English: ‘Of course there are injured people here. This is an A&E hospital.’ But no, no one had been injured by the bomb. I closed my eyes and started to breathe again.
The real question, I guess, is why people like me keep putting ourselves in extreme danger. First of all, there’s something immensely gratifying about neutralising a weapon designed to kill and maim large numbers of people.
But if I put my hand on my heart, the biggest and most powerful incentive is the buzz. Rendering terrorist bombs safe is probably the most exciting thing I’ve done in my life. It’s to do with living on the edge. With finding yourself in an elemental world where everything is black and white: life or death. The flipside of stress is that you develop resilience. You learn to cope. And you just get on with the job — even when your efforts aren’t appreciated by the people you’re trying to help.
In May 2004, for instance, my whole team came under fire in a well-planned ambush in Basra. It was 11.15pm and we’d been on the go since 8am — first neutralising a bank of rockets that were pointing at our divisional HQ and then defusing two roadside bombs. Exhausted and hungry, we were driving back in three vehicles when some men smoking shisha pipes by the side of the road suddenly stood up and started firing. At the same time, men on the rooftops opened up with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
"It was an attack designed to kill us all, and absolutely terrifying. I could feel sonic waves hitting my face as the bullets whizzed past."
As we all drove on as fast as we could, I opened my door and started returning fire. By then, the driver of my unarmoured vehicle had been hit in the right shoulder and was driving with his left hand. It was only afterwards, when we regrouped and discovered that we were miraculously all still alive, that I realised I’d been hit. Fortunately, however, the bullet in my shin hadn’t reached the bone and was easily extracted.
At 8am the next morning, I had another call-out and it was straight back to work. But the worst part wasn’t the wound in my leg or the dangerous job ahead; it was knowing we’d have to drive down that very same road again.
Working as a bomb disposal operator comes at a cost, of course. One minute, you’re being shot at with murderous weapons, or you’re standing at the cliff’s edge, just you and the bomb. The next you’re at home with your wife and kids, attempting to be normal — and not always succeeding.
You may be busy trying to save the world, but it’s probably the most selfish occupation you can have if you’re also a father and husband. Indeed, my own marriage sadly ended in divorce in 2011. That’s why, 18 years after joining the Army, having dealt with thousands of explosive devices and disarmed more than 100 IEDs, I decided it was time to leave.
By then I was a major, and a promotion to lieutenant colonel was on the cards. But I would have been stuck behind a desk, and that didn’t appeal to me. The alternative, however, was far more chilling. After 11 years as a bomb disposal operator, I knew I was living on borrowed time. By the law of averages, my luck was soon due to run out.