Watch CBSN Live

Bomb Disposal Expert's Cheat Sheet Tattooed on His Arm

Sergeant Matthew Jackson, a bomb disposal expert from the 1st EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) Company, has the length of his left arm tattooed with the the molecular structures of different types of explosives.

As part of our continuing coverage of "Afghanistan: the Road Ahead," - CBS News correspondent Terry McCarthy follows the Third Battalion, First Marines at home, and abroad in Afghanistan.

Sergeant Matthew Jackson, a bomb disposal expert from the 1st EOD Company, likes to quote Charles Manson in relation to his job - "total paranoia is total awareness."  It helps to keep his mind focused when he and his explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) team are working on one of the countless IEDs they have come across during their deployment in southern Afghanistan.

Jackson, on first meeting, looks just a tad eccentric. An English major at college, he is a big Hemingway fan. He wears thick black-rimmed glasses, and along the length of his left arm are a series of tattoos of the molecular structures of different types of explosives. Some call it his crib sheet, but he regards it as a portrait gallery of close friends, whom he refers to fondly as he lists their explosive properties and relative levels of oxygen content. In the center of his forearm is TNT - "the base of all explosives," by his wrist are blasting cap explosives, nitroglycerin is further up his arm, but his personal favorite, he says with the enthusiasm of a professional collector, is RDX - the main component of C4 - "it's just neat, it's sensitive, it's powerful..."

Sgt. Matthew Jackson of the 1st EOD Company.

But on the job, the semi-humorous bravura is replaced by meticulous attention to detail - and a mindset that is always looking for the worst. "My motto is where there is one there is three and where there is three there are more, and each individual is a complete and different problem." He starts from the perspective of the Taliban bomb-emplacer: "How would I get me?' is my first thought on these guys - you got to put your mind into 'how would they want me to come," and not come that way - you know, come at a different angle..."

Ideally he works remotely - with robots, ropes, long poles, whatever he can find that keeps him at some distance from a potential bomb. Ask him about the "Hurt Locker," and like most EOD techs he says that, as a movie, it was entertaining, but in terms of what EOD techs actually do, it bore no relation to reality. In following Jackson and his colleagues for a week nobody every put on a bomb suit - although they have them. But IEDs did blow up two robots, two mechanical arms attached to armored vehicles, one bulldozer with a mine rake on the front and one mine roller.

On day seven, an IED caught three of his colleagues, Cpl. Daniel Greer, a combat engineer, and Sgt. Johnny Jones and Staff Sgt. Eric Chir, both IED techs - it killed Greer and injured Jones and Chir. Jackson was sent in to do the post-blast analysis - a pressure plate hidden under a small pile of garbage at the back of a building, next to a path that had been used already a number of times by the Marines.

"There was just something they didn't see," he says. "You know it's nobody's fault, you know, that's just how it happens..."

Jackson says that after the blast he will only go even more carefully - "I am going to be even more cautious than I am now - you know I have been as cautious as I can be at this point, but I can't let it shake me because all the rest of these guys, when it comes to the devices, rely on me, honestly."

Watching the EOD techs at work makes one wonder why anyone would volunteer for such a job.  Jackson, a Marine since 2003, has been an EOD tech since 2005, and did two tours in Iraq before coming to Afghanistan. Jackson has a simple answer.

"Everyone has their own reason in this job - mostly it is the guys next to you.... I do it for the guy next to me, I do it for the guys who are walking that ground - my main overlying goal is to get every single person home that I can."

More of Terry McCarthy's "Thundering Third" Blogs:

The Most Dangerous Job in Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, a Beautiful Desert Goes Boom

A Day in the Life: Wardak, Afghanistan

Preaching to the Corps

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue