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Hilltown Archives The Altamont Enterprise, May 7, 2009
Adam Kodra returns from top-secret missions in Afghanistan
By Zach Simeone
BERNE Adam Kodra has come home to the Hilltowns, after spending nearly a year in Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan with the Army National Guard. He was on top-secret missions, disarming bombs in the heart of the Middle East.
Being on those assignments was “incredible,” said Kodra, who is 22. “It’s a good feeling, and it’s a proud feeling, more than anything. Been there, done that, can’t tell you what it was.”
He arrived home in Berne on April 22, and was officially welcomed back by his family and friends the following Saturday at a party at the Maple Inn in East Berne.
“It was outrageous,” Kodra said of the gathering. “Everyone showed up that I wanted to see. I wanted to see who showed up see who my true friends are.”
Despite being happy to be home, being back stateside has been “kind of messed up,” Kodra said.
“I hate cars behind me,” he said. “We had what are called VBIEDs [Vehicle Born Improvised Explosive Devices] over there; it’s basically a car bomb. They would always try to get into our convoys to blow us up, so, now I have a problem with cars coming behind me.”
He has a more difficult time tolerating blood, too, despite his years of hunting and fishing before serving in the military.
“When you’re driving around out there, you can’t have your windows open,” Kodra said. “Just driving down the road with my windows open; I missed that. And, you can’t have fires, or the enemy will know where you are, so, I missed that, too.”
Recollections of his time in the war zone though it took him years to get there are vivid. Kodra recalled his team’s first encounter with an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.
“I was looking out the window, a piece of the window broke away, and I felt the boom, and I thought to myself, ‘Wow, these guys are trying to kill me,’” he said. “Later, when I took the gun, I thought about that. We’re trying to help these people. We’re trying to build schools for them. We’re giving them food, and we’re giving them clothes. And these people come in and tear up everything that we did. So, to be honest, when it was my trigger time, I thought, ‘They’re not going to take my life, or my buddies’ lives.’”
His family, he said, pulled him through the experience.
“My parents are a big part of my life; they get me through everything,” he said, taking out a picture of his parents from his wallet. “That was with me everywhere I went.”
He also had a necklace of St. Michael, the protector of the army; a cross that his grandmother gave him; and what he called a “wish rock,” a clear rock with a small angel inside, given to him by his aunt. He kept his iPod with him, too, which was full of pictures of his family.
“Without my family and friends back home, I don’t know what I would have done,” Kodra said.
Decision to enlist
Kodra decided to enlist after his government teacher at Berne-Knox-Westerlo asked the class, “If there was a draft, who would go?”
He recalled, “I was the only one raising my hand. And she goes, ‘Oh, well, why don’t you go join the National Guard or something? If more people did that, then there wouldn’t need to be a draft.’ And I was like, ‘That’s a pretty good idea.’”
He enlisted on May 25, 2004, just after graduating from BKW. He was 17.
“My poor mom had to sign the only-child waiver, and the under-age waiver,” said Kodra. “She wasn’t going to do it, and I was like, ‘Mom, either you can do it now, or we can just wait for me to turn 18, and it will just take that much longer for me to get back out. But, I’m doing it.’”
He turned 18 in boot camp.
“I scored pretty high on my ASVAB, which gave me options,” he said, referring to the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, which tests a person’s qualification for enlistment. “The lowest you can get is a 16, which qualifies you for infantry; I got a 98.” This meant he was qualified for military intelligence, he said.
With the war in the Middle East at its height, Kodra wanted to be part of the fight. But, he also didn’t want to be a “ground pounder,” he said; he preferred to be in a more specialized area.
The recruiter recommended sniper training, and Kodra accepted. He went on to join the first battalion of the 105th infantry out of Schenectady.
“I go through, they put me in a scout platoon to be with the snipers, and then, in August 2005, I was deployed stateside down south after the London bombings,” Kodra said. “So, I was just down in New York City guarding stuff.”
He never got to go to sniper school. “I ended up being a ground pounder,” he said.
That October, he became a recruiter, which lasted 10 months, followed by a brief stint at the Boat and RV Warehouse at Crossgates Mall.
“Then, one day, I went down to my unit to get a beret my dog actually ate my beret,” Kodra laughed. He found out that his unit in Schenectady was switching from infantry to explosive ordnance disposal.
“They said I qualified for it, I’ve got the scores for it, and looks like I can get clearance,” he said. “At first, I said, ‘No way; I’m not disarming bombs.’” But it only took a few minutes of convincing from his commander before he decided to sign up, he said.
Kodra spent the better part of 2007 training in the disposal of explosives.
Before beginning training for explosive ordnance disposal, or EOD, Kodra had to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, and took a bomb-suit test, which can include carrying a 95-pound projectile 100 meters, doing at least 15 two-count pushups, sorting scattered coins by size and date, and doing long division all while wearing an 83-pound suit that retains body heat, while limiting mobility and vision.
“I carried a 155-millimeter projectile 100 meters,” he said. “I went upstairs with it, downstairs with it. I did physical training in it. I had to run in that thing for a little over a quarter mile. When I used it in school, I was in it for two hours, and I lost eight pounds in sweat,” Kodra said.
“Then,” he said, “you get your top-secret clearance, and you get sent to EOD school, which, they say, is the second hardest school in the military besides special forces.”
His training began at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama, where he started as one of 25, and graduated one of eight.
“That was more of a basic understanding of ordnance, to see who could grasp what was happening,” Kodra said.
The rest of his training took place at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, in a new class of 25; he was one of six to graduate. The training in Florida was “a lot of interesting stuff I can’t really tell you about, unfortunately,” Kodra said.
“When you go to EOD school, they train you in everything from hand grenades to nukes. That includes rockets, bombs, projectiles, dispensers everything,” he said, adding, “You have to be quick thinking and independent thinking.”
Trainees are broken up into two-man teams, made up of a team leader and a team member.
“I served as team member,” he said. “The team leaders are more experienced,” he said, and are usually staff sergeants.
“The school starts out with the basic workings of fuses, and it builds until, when you reach the end, everything you’ve learned is applied to your final test,” Kodra went on. “And you have to be perfect, because, if you get one thing wrong, you can fail, depending on what it is.”
The training lasted 364 days.
Kodra volunteered for deployment early in 2008.
“I was like, ‘All right, I’ve been in the military for four years, but I haven’t done anything,’” he said. “The original reason I signed up was because I wanted to bring home a father or a son, and I didn’t want people going over there who didn’t want to be there. So, I volunteered, and I got the call March 15.”
In April, he joined up with the 217th EOD Company out of California. He returned to Alabama for Global Anti-Terrorism Operational Readiness [GATOR] training, which lasted two weeks at the Redstone Arsenal, and headed to Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, before heading overseas.
On July 6, he landed in Kuwait.
“What we were used for in Kuwait was UXO UneXploded Ordnance,” he said. “The military issues a 10-percent dud ratio on everything, meaning they can drop 10 bombs, but one of them is not going to go off.”
Every American soldier goes through Kuwait before moving on to Iraq; some receive additional training there before going into battle.
“Everything we dropped in the first Gulf War is still out there,” Kodra said. “So, it’s our job to go out there, find these things, and disarm them to make things safer.”
He was stationed at one camp for about two months before moving up to the Kuwait-Iraq border, where he was stationed for about three months, he said. He could not reveal the names of the camps.
“From there, they pushed me into Baghdad,” he said. “We started out in Saddam’s old palace that’s where our ‘embassy’ was,” he said, making quotation marks with his fingers.
“The palace was amazing,” he went on. “All gold-plated doors, marble floors, murals painted up on the ceilings and on the walls, mahogany furniture, a lot of unbelievable stuff. It was like, ‘What the hell? He can’t feed his people, but he’s got all this?’”
Kodra eventually relocated at the newly built U.S. embassy, but it wasn’t until early 2009 that he saw action himself.
While Kodra saw the calmer side of the conflict in Kuwait and Iraq, his tour of Afghanistan was shaped by explosions and gunfire.
“I’m sitting there one day, and I get a phone call on our secret phone, saying, ‘Hey, we might be going to Afghanistan get ready,’” he said.
He found out two days later that he was one of eight chosen to go, but he had not been trained specifically for the kind of combat he was about to enter.
“Baghdad is civilized: There are concrete buildings, there are signs, there are paved roads,” Kodra said. “In Afghanistan, you’re fighting in the mountains, and you’re fighting guys who live in mud houses. The terrain everything is different. We weren’t trained for this, we just had to go in and learn as we go. They pushed us down into the forward operating base, and we started running as a Counter-IED [Improvised Explosive Device] team.”
The terrain in Afghanistan, Kodra said, presented some of the greatest challenges.
“We started out at 8,000 feet, so, there was three feet of snow at all times in the winter,” he said. “And then, when it warmed up, we had to deal with the Taliban’s spring offensive.”
The terrain was either muddy, icy, or hilly, he said, “and the vehicles we drive are huge they’re about 50,000 pounds, and probably about 15 feet tall, so, when you get these vehicles on a road that’s really a donkey trail, they roll over.”
Nighttime missions, he said, were sometimes made even more challenging by night-vision goggles.
“You’re driving around at night, and, because you’ve got the goggles on, you’ve got no depth perception,” he said. “So, to be driving around at night and going on a mission was just scary.”
In Afghanistan, Kodra’s team was proactive.
“That means we find a bomb-maker through intel, we go in and clear the houses of all explosive hazards, detain the bad guy, and move on with our day,” Kodra said. “We also did route-clearance missions, where we go out with engineers, drive down a road, and detect magnetic signatures to tell whether or not there may be an IED nearby. If we detect an IED, we stop the vehicles, get out, and disarm it.”
Some bombs, he said, cannot be diffused, and have to be blown up where they are.
“As soon as we started working on something, that’s when the ambushes took place,” he said. “And they came out fast, hard, and heavy. They would start mortaring us, then they’d start rocketing us, then they’d start shooting at us with small arms. They were using tunnels, and they were everywhere. It was unbelievable. We’d be out there with 20 of us, and there would be 40 or 50 of them. And it was just fight your way out.”
In April, his tour ended. He returned to Kuwait, flew back to Camp Shelby in Mississippi, and was back home a few days later. But there were times in Afghanistan, Kodra said, when he wondered whether or not he would make it home.
Life after serving
Next week, Kodra will start a contract job in Manchester, New Hampshire, near the Boston Air Force base. There, he will use the skills he learned in the Army.
“We go out in old bombing ranges, and, say the government wants to turn it into a development and sell it. We go out with a metal detector, and dig up every piece of metal out there,” he said. “If there’s any ordnance, we disarm it or blow it up, and, once it’s clear, they can develop it.”
The Air Force, he said, used to bomb that area in Manchester for practice, and unexploded ordnance now lies underground.
“We have to go in there and dig that stuff up so it doesn’t blow up an excavator,” he said.
One day, Kodra wants to buy a house and start a family, he said. But, having spent a year in a war zone, the landmines he must now face are within himself.