12 October 2007

Rock Star

Just for the record, THIS is what a Rock Star looks like. Mick Jagger, Steven Tyler and what's left of the Beatles, eat your hearts out.

RAMADI, Iraq — For Marine Gunnery Sgt. Michael Burghardt, the business of hunting down and defusing roadside bombs is something of a deadly chess game.

Burghardt, 36, of Fountain Valley, Calif., is probably one of the best-known and most well-respected improvised bomb experts in Iraq, where his skills are in constant demand.

Last September, an embedded journalist snapped a photo of Burghardt moments after a roadside bomb exploded on him in a notoriously troubled corner of western Ramadi — a city that Burghardt describes as “the scariest place on Earth.” The image shows Burghardt with bloodied legs and shredded uniform, flipping the bird to an unseen insurgent who triggered the bomb.

The photo has circulated widely among military personnel in Iraq, who view it as a powerful symbol of resolve and fighting spirit.

Whether Burghardt is using a Mars rover-type robot or a knife blade to probe for bombs, or searching for them in a heavily armored Buffalo mine-clearing vehicle, his goal is to outmaneuver the fertile yet deadly imagination of the unseen bomb-maker and, he hopes, save the lives of fellow soldiers and Marines.

Now, with roughly two months remaining in his third Iraq tour, Burghardt shakes his head in wonder at the variety and evolution of the roadside bombs he has encountered and the relentlessness with which they’re planted.

“It’s a big game of chess,” Burghardt said. “They’re thinking their steps through on how to beat us, and we’re doing the same thing.”

While roadside bombs remain the No. 1 killer of U.S. troops in Iraq, aggressive efforts at finding improvised explosive devices in and around Ramadi have reduced the number of attacks here from a September high of 45 a week to fewer than 15 currently, the U.S. military reports.

Burghardt earned the Bronze Star for disabling 64 roadside bombs and destroying more than 1,500 pieces of ordnance during his second Iraq tour.

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