The call comes in around 8 p.m. on Richard Swann’s military-issued flip phone. (“Old school, you know?” he jokes. “The government doesn’t want to buy us any new technology.”) It typically sits silent in its charger for weeks at a time in the living room of Swann’s home in Dallas, Georgia, a small town about 30 miles northwest of Atlanta. Still, Swann is hardwired to answer it, rushing from his 7-year-old daughter’s room, where, on this Thursday night, he’s cut short a debate over bedtime. He knows every call, however infrequent, could be a matter of life or death.
When Air Force Master Sergeant Swann was deployed, as he was for tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, these calls would come in three times a day. A land mine had been hidden in the sand, or an improvised explosive device (IED) had been stashed in the trunk of an abandoned car on the side of the road. His job, and the job of his fellow explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) airmen, was to put on a protective bomb suit and delicately disarm and remove the (sometimes literally) ticking threat —like a stateside version of The Hurt Locker
Stateside, Swann and the 94th Civil Engineering Squadron from Dobbins Air Reserve Base, on the outskirts of Atlanta, face a very different threat. While they’re equipped to deal with a domestic terrorist act such as the Boston Marathon bombing or the Oklahoma City bombing, the vast majority of calls stem from everyday citizens who’ve stumbled upon weapons of long-ago wars — forgotten souvenirs from a tour of duty in Europe, Vietnam or the Middle East, “cool stuff” purchased from Ebay and Craigslist or relics found on rural Southern farms and pastures that were once battlefields. A typical example: Back in 2013, construction workers breaking ground on the College Football Hall of Fame in downtown Atlanta inadvertently dug up a Civil-War era cannonball, which turned out to be a live round containing gunpowder and ball bearings.
Swann grabs his government flip phone and finds a quiet corner. Opening the aged device, he hears the voice of his superior officer. A man was spotted with an ordnance on the side of Panthersville Road, a rural byway just outside Dallas, mere minutes from where Swann now sits. The rest of the information is scant and vague: A military artillery round. Potentially live
The airman gives his wife a quick hug and kiss before running out to his Corolla, where he keeps a go-bag of combat boots; basic tools, like a Leatherman, knives and screwdrivers; and a flame-retardant flight suit that he now zips over his jeans and T-shirt. Swann backs the Toyota out of his driveway and heads out into the chilly October night.
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