The latest terrorist bombing attacks on US soil last weekend – in New York and New Jersey – have again put the spotlight on members of police bomb squads.  Many of these men and women learned their skills in the US armed forces. Recently, I spoke with an Iraq war veteran; a Massachusetts man who specialized in one of the most dangerous jobs on earth.     

Living is waking up to the sound of an alarm in a sun-drenched bedroom and taking in the avian chorus that greets the day. So to think that your life could end suddenly, to think that you could no longer revel in things ordinary is to walk in the shoes of Mike Sanger.  

“I separated from the United States Army after 10 years, total 5 years active duty, 5 years in the National Guard. I was a staff sergeant when I separated and my career field was Explosive Ordnance Disposal."

In other words, Mike Sanger dismantled bombs, like the improvised explosive devices or IED’s that thundered in New York and New Jersey over the weekend. He risked life and limb not once or twice during his 15 month-stint in Iraq but almost twice a week.

“There were  times where I was 'wow, that could have gotten really bad’  but it didn't, and just be happy that I was able to come home, and I was able to come home walking and with all my fingers and toes.  I have a lot of friends that either didn't come home or came home missing limbs. One of my very very close friends is in a wheelchair but you have to try not to think, ‘alright if I do X wrong then I'm going to die.’  You have to basically say I'm going to do all of this as right as I can and hope that I do it correctly."

These days Mike Sanger works for the Department of Veteran Affairs in Boston, but his bomb disposal training kicks in whenever he hears news about a terrorist device planted or going off as they did in New York and New Jersey. Devices there were made harmless by police-operated robots.   

“That was what kept me alive. The robots allowed us the distance to stay away from the explosive hazard so our team and our security personnel could be as safe as possible”

Sanger is a father of four who lives in the same house in Topsfield where he was raised. He was watching from the comfort of his living room as Iraqi civilians and US service men and women were being torn apart by IED’s. He says he knew then what he had to do.

“So at 29-years old, I basically cut ties with the life that I had, joined the Army, and ultimately joined the EOD career field, Explosive Ordnance Disposal.”

But bombs were not the only near-death experiences that shadowed Mike Sanger during his tour in Iraq.  One day he was shot in the chest by a sniper.   He still carries the crumpled bullet with him in a small metal case, like a miniature coffin. 

Mike Sanger trained at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida at the elite Explosive Ordnance Disposal School. He says his military bomb-sniffing instincts are aroused from time to time, but not always at the right time.

“There are times where I will see a bag or a box or a package and that will kind of bring you back into that combat mold, and you have to kinda recenter yourself and say ‘I'm in Boston or I'm in Brookline or Brighton, and it's probably just trash cause today’s Thursday and it's trash day and somebody put the box out early.”

And then, there are other times.  Sanger was attached to the explosive disposal unit with the Massachusetts National Guard when he got the call on April 15th 2013 – Marathon Monday.  

“You know I started watching the news coverage and I saw the first device go and then the second device went and within 20 minutes our unit had been called up to get down and get outfitted to help out.”

Mike Sanger says he is prepared to help again if called upon.  Meanwhile, he stays in close contact with his former Army buddies, some who move through life on prosthetic legs and reach out with arms not their own.  

“One of my very close colleagues who I went to school with, she had an accident in Iraq and lost both of her arms. And I talk to a guy I haven’t talked to in five or six months and the conversations pick up as if I talked to him yesterday because we have that close bond.”   

The final thought of a guy who dismantled bombs for a living? 

“A lot gets lost when people forget that life isn't just about getting up every morning, going to work, making money and coming home. And I try not to forget that when I go home tonight my four kids at night and throw the football around until 7:30 and then I have to be the bad guy because it's time to go in and brush the teeth and go to bed.  And it's about the people that we love and the people that we’re with and not losing sight of that with all of the 24-hour media coverage and the jobs and not enough money for this and not money for that. It's about the people that you're surrounded by at the end of the day.”