By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Air Force Maj. Matthew Conlan walks a couple of miles regularly through the cavernous tunnel system of shops and restaurants below his office in Crystal City, downtown Arlington, Va. Conlan was injured in Afghanistan in 2005 and returned to active duty to work at the Air Force's counter-improvised explosive device office in Arlington. DoD photo by Fred W. Baker III Hi-Res
WASHINGTON, Nov. 5, 2008 — It's just after 5 on a weekday evening at Air Force Maj. Matthew Conlan's home in a leafy Northern Virginia subdivision. Conlan's son, Cameron, is home from college for the summer and playing with their dog in the three-story townhouse. Conlan's wife, Becky, just got home from work and is on the phone with a utility company.
The dog hears the familiar "click" as the electronic garage door opens and, like clockwork, he starts barking like crazy. The long-time family pet knows Conlan is home, and that it's almost time for their evening walk.
The Conlans' life, for the most part, appears to be normal. But like some 440 other airmen seriously wounded in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Conlan and his family have struggled for normalcy. While on the surface, their life now looks like a slice of Americana, underneath the layers of Conlan's uniform, and behind the smiles on the faces of his family, lie the scars and memories of a bomb blast three years ago that nearly tore them apart.
Conlan grew up an Air Force "brat" immersed in the military. He was born in an Air Force hospital in France. He graduated from high school in Alaska. His father retired from the Air Force and his mother, too, spent some time in the service. His two brothers became Marines. So it was natural for him to sign up for the Air Force in 1989 after attending Air Force ROTC at Arizona State University, even though his father was against the idea.
"He said, 'I served 20 years on active-duty so you wouldn't have to,'" Conlan recalls. "I said 'That's not true, Dad. You served 20 years so I would have the option to choose what I do with my life. And I choose to serve.'"
Conlan joined as an acquisitions officer and later transferred to civil engineering. He worked his way through the ranks in various assignments, and in 2005 was serving as the deputy airbase squadron commander at the Royal Air Force Croughton in Oxfordshire, England, when a deployment opportunity opened with the 455th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron heading to Afghanistan.
Conlan volunteered. His wife, Becky, prior military herself, was supportive of his deployment. "She knows that's why I wear the uniform," Conlan said.
Staying With His Troops
On June 17, 2005, just outside of Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, Conlan was out with an explosive ordnance team collecting and destroying some of the thousands of unused munitions scattered across the country's landscape. Many artillery shells, landmines, grenades and other explosives remain from the country's near decade-long war with Russia that ended almost 20 years ago. The Taliban and other extremist groups often arm the munitions with homemade triggering devices and propellants to use in attacks against coalition forces.
Conlan's job as the expeditionary civil engineer squadron commander didn't require him to be "outside the wire" with the ordnance troops. His main job was to keep the old, 10,000-foot Soviet-built airstrip open.
Built in 1976 primarily as a landing strip for small fighters, the United States and other NATO forces were landing huge cargo planes there, as many as 50 flights per day.
"I loved it. It was one of those assignments where you actually see the results of your efforts," Conlan said. "Every time an aircraft landed it was because we were keeping that runway adequately maintained. It was literally falling apart. It was taking a lot of heavy use and it was just crumbling."
Not the kind of guy to give orders from behind a desk, Conlan, the only officer in the squadron of about 80, went out that day with a group of about 30 troops, ordnance experts and others, to help haul away the munitions. "Whatever my guys were doing, I'd be out there with them," he said.
'What the Hell Happened?'
"All this stuff was just lying around all over the place," he said of the munitions scattered about.
Conlan noticed an artillery shell mostly buried in the ground, nose first. One of the ordnance crew, Air Force Staff Sgt. Christopher Ramakka, dug around the shell to see if had been expended, or if it needed to be destroyed.
Ramakka and Conlan stood next to the shell talking for a few minutes. When they stepped away, a bomb exploded.
"I did not hear the explosion. It was all a visual sensation like somebody was flipping the lights off and on really fast," Conlan said. "I was falling, and as I was falling I was thinking, 'What the hell is going on?' And then I'm lying on the ground on my back and I'm thinking 'What the hell happened?'"
What Conlan didn't know at the time was that Ramakka had been standing upon a buried anti-personnel mine. It had activated when he stepped onto it. When he stepped off, it exploded. Officials later said that the mine was likely placed there by the Taliban because they knew the troops regularly collected the old munitions and that the artillery shell would attract the ordnance team's attention. In other words, it was a booby trap.
After the blast, Conlan lay in the dust, mud and blood trying to sort out what just happened.
"It was a very surreal experience," Conlan said. His vision was clear. He looked over at Ramakka.
"I looked and there's this leg waving around with no foot, and I'm like 'Oh crap.' Of course I used stronger language at the time," Conlan said.
Between them, there was a smoking hole in the ground.
Still stunned and not yet feeling any pain, Conlan said he then went into "self-assessment mode." His right leg was bent backwards, and there was hole in it with blood and bone oozing out. He couldn't straighten his left leg, so he ripped open a tear in his pants over his left thigh.
"There's this giant hole in there big enough to stick my fist in," Conlan said. "I remember sticking my fingers in there to see if there was blood spraying out. I was thinking that there's an artery there and I couldn't get a good look at what was going on."