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Retired from the U.S. military, these bomb techs are helping dispose of mines in Ukraine

A sign indicates the presence of mines in Kherson Oblast, Ukraine in early December.
Cory Vaillancourt
American Homefront
A sign indicates the presence of mines in Kherson Oblast, Ukraine in early December.

The volunteers - some in their 70s - are helping educate Ukrainians about unexploded munitions and training Ukrainian forces to disarm them.

Across the vast plains of Ukraine, a small American nonprofit organization is conducting training sessions with members of the National Police of Ukraine. Their goal is to protect the people from the dangers of unexploded munitions.

Bomb Techs Without Borders is a small organization, started in a Bakersfield, California garage in 2018 by former Army explosive ordinance disposal officer Matthew Howard.

“Most of us were veterans who were working in tech until we were ready to take this prime time and do the mission that we had always wanted to do,” Howard said.

Within a week of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, Bomb Techs Without Borders began a social media campaign - educating Ukrainians about the dangers of unexploded munitions.

“That was something that we could do immediately, while in the background we were spinning up and preparing to deploy personnel forward,” said Howard. “The first person who went forward, of course, was John.”

He's referring to John Culp, a bomb disposal technician who served as a United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq. Culp retired as a Special Forces lieutenant colonel and lives in the North Carolina mountains when he’s not on the battlefields of Eastern Europe.

“When the invasion occurred, I immediately wanted to do something,” Culp said. “I’ll be 70 in a week. I’m not exactly the right guy to be carrying a rifle and sloshing around in a trench. I really felt strongly about the wrong and the right of the situation, and I just felt like this was something that was going to be very important to America and to the West, and I wanted to be a part of it.”

Culp found Bomb Techs Without Borders and has since been to Ukraine twice.

As fundraising has grown, the group has rented apartments, bought gear, and started sending unpaid volunteers to Ukraine. Their mission is humanitarian — to educate, and to build a sense of community among Ukrainian first responders.

Howard said the group has a “cordial” relationship with the U.S. Department of State and devotes a significant amount of time to recording the types of munitions they find in a best practices guidebook.

What they’re finding are outdated and poorly maintained Russian weaponry, which means there are more duds lurking in the ground, waiting for civilians, soldiers, and disposal techs.

It’s estimated that more than 100 million mines are scattered about the globe. One mine-awareness group said that for every 5,000 mines that are eliminated, one deminer is killed and two more are seriously injured.

A 2021 report by the United Nations said that in 2020, more than 10,000 people were injured globally by mines, IEDs, or unexploded ordinance, like artillery shells or cruise missiles or bombs from airplanes.

“Right now, Ukraine, I believe, is the most mined country. It's a huge problem,” said John Frucci of Oklahoma State University’s Institute for Global Explosive Mitigation, which acts as a hub for various nongovernmental organizations engaged in this type of work.

“There are a lot of organizations that are trying to help," Frucci said. "Bomb Techs Without Borders, they’re really hustling to get things done. If we can add more of these people, we can solve some of these problems.”

Culp said those problems will be felt in Ukraine for years, as air raid sirens continue to herald more Russian ordinance.

“As Matthew is fond of saying, in 10 years, the Ukrainian EOD teams and EOD technicians are going to be the best in the world, because they won’t have any choice,” said Culp. “I usually add to that, ‘The ones that are left.’ Because they’re getting killed. And that’s all there is to it.”

Howard said Bomb Techs Without Borders is always looking for people with technical experience and those who might be available for travel to Ukraine. But since the members of the group are all technicians, they’re also looking for people with non-profit fundraising expertise.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Cory Vaillancourt serves as Politics Editor for The Smoky Mountain News in North Carolina. His work has also appeared on NPR, WUNC, and Blue Ridge Public Radio, as well as in The Washington Post.

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