Soldier spent her time in Iraq cleaning up explosives

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Angela Olguin looks at a picture of herself taken in Iraq, where she spent five months clearing road sides and property of explosive ordnances with the 27th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Unit. (Staff photo: Eric Kluth)

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

A few days before Angela Olguin was slated to leave Iraq, she said a bomb exploded in downtown Kirkuk. Intended for the U.S. contractor vehicles that drummed by the spot daily, the explosion killed an Iraqi girl.

Her knees drawn toward her chin as she sat on the porch of her Clovis home while on leave, Olguin said she did not want to leave her station in Kirkuk — because as a member of an Air Force explosive ordnance disposal unit, she might have prevented the death.

“We would see unexploded ordnances next to people’s houses. We dug up a row from an Iraqi policeman’s yard. We made it (Iraq) a safer place, no matter how you look at it. I feel like what I did there was important,” said Olguin, who is stationed at Cannon Air Force Base.

For five months, Olguin absorbed the lessons of war in Iraq.
A city that has much to tell, Kirkuk is a land rich with oil and fertile soil. It’s also the site of a power struggle between its mixed ethnic population of Kurds, Turkomans, and Arabs that stretches back into history.

The Iran-Iraq conflict, Olguin said, left its mark on the city. The elite EOD unit, trained to clear roadsides and property of explosive ordnances — rockets, mortars and bombs — uncovered acres of Iraqi soil infested with such hazardous materials, Olguin said, many planted in the farmland.

According to one Web site, the practice began as early as 1988, when Iraqi artillery shells, bombs and rockets loaded with chemical warfare materials were stored in some towns and simply dumped in others. Disposal of new and old threats, most often through detonation, belonged to Senior Airman Olguin and her team, a group of highly trained individuals.

The protocol for detonation differs according to locale, according to fellow Cannon EOD officer Wes Leaverton.

“Stateside we have to render it (the hazard) safe. But in Iraq, there is not a lot of valuable property around, so it’s safer to blow it (ordnances) up,” said Leaverton, who asserts the unit always takes action to safeguard the greatest number of people possible.

In jeans and a black T-shirt, the 21-year-old Olguin shrugs off the intensity of the war and her role in it, as well as the assertion that she is a bit of an anomaly, a female in a male-dominant workplace.

While in Kirkuk, she refused to be housed in the women’s barracks, situated miles from the rest of her unit. Her tell-it-like-it-is attitude, her tenacity, her toughness is surprising for those who judge her character by her petite 5-foot-2 frame.

“It’s funny — she’s so small so she has to work harder to keep up the same pace as everyone else. But she’s not content to just sit around. Here she’s just one of the troops,” said Leaverton, who has worked with Olguin for more than a year.

“I’ve never hung out with women,” Olguin said, using a spoon to eat a lunch-time snack, a single avocado, her hair, still wet from the shower, slung into a ponytail. “So, coming into a male dominated workforce didn’t bother me.”

Olguin’s Iraq is also a world of dualisms.

“Depending on social status, people live anywhere from communities of tents, to mud huts, to really beautiful homes, houses so elaborate and gorgeous,” Olguin said.

“There is a strong Kurdish population in Kirkuk. Anti-American sentiment there was not strong. But there was one mosque that would broadcast anti-American messages.”

Those notes still ring in Olguin’s ear, but the cries and thank yous of a host of jubilant strangers are also fixed into her memory.

“Right after the presidential election, we were going to pick up an unexploded ordnance. When we were done, we let traffic go through. It was a mostly Kurdish population, so they were happy. Cars were driving by honking, little kids were waving. Then this car stopped and this Kurdish lady just kept saying ‘thank you, thank you,’ because that’s all she knew how to say. The children had handfuls of candy and just kept giving it to me,” Olguin remembered.

The Colorado native has returned to the Cannon Air Force Base “shop,” an old fire-station where her New Mexico EOD unit carries out day-to-day duties.

The parents that awaited her return so anxiously, now hover at her side, absorbing the stories their daughter.

“My view,” Olguin said, her parents listening intently, “is that a lot of people think we are at war. I don’t. I think we are liberating those people. I am proud to be part of that liberation. Not only was I saving the lives of our coalition but I was saving the lives of Iraqi people.”