02.02.10

The Real-Life Hurt Locker

How accurate is Kathryn Bigelow’s Best Picture nominee? Bryan Curtis talks to an ex-Marine about defusing bombs in Iraq, getting blown up, and the dangers of coming home.

Jeffrey Sarver, who served as an Army master sergeant and bomb disposal expert in Iraq, plans to sue the makers of the Hurt Locker because he says the film’s main character is based on him. Sarver also claims he coined the term “the hurt locker,” and that the main character’s call sign, “Blaster One,” was his in Iraq. The film’s screenwriter, Mark Boal, was embedded with Sarver’s unit, and Boal used the article he wrote for Playboy magazine, which Boal adapted for the film. The Hurt Locker’s American distributor issued a statement saying it wants “a quick resolution to the claims made by Master Sgt. Sarver.” How accurate is Kathryn Bigelow’s Best Picture winner? Bryan Curtis talks to an ex-Marine about defusing bombs in Iraq, getting blown up, and the dangers of coming home.

On Sunday, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Best Director Academy Award for her Iraq movie The Hurt Locker. The film, which has also snared Best Picture, tells the story of three Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) soldiers, who are summoned to the site of roadside bombs and then, upon arrival, must disable them with the precision of piano tuners.

Timothy Colomer, 34, was a Marine EOD soldier in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. In an interview from his home in Virginia, Colomer said The Hurt Locker took numerous Hollywood liberties but accurately captured the sensory experience of being an EOD soldier. Which is to say, it showed just how terrifying and maddening it can be to chase after bombs planted by an unseen enemy.

“I lost some height if you want to hear something crazy,” an ex-Marine said. “I was six feet tall. Now I’m five-ten.”

“It’s a flood of emotions,” Colomer said. “It’s absolutely intense. You don’t know who it is. You can’t see [the insurgents]. You really distrust everybody around you. … There was fear. Pretty intense fear, actually.”

An account of Colomer’s eight months in Iraq is like The Hurt Locker without the swelling music. As the movie reveals, an EOD soldier is not just an expert bomb-defuser. He is engaged in an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse. The insurgents will sometimes plant bombs to bait an EOD team into showing up, then attack them with guns. Colomer says his team was harassed or shot at “probably about 50 or 60 percent of the time” it responded to a call. Other times, the insurgents will plant a phony bomb or weapons cache to study the EOD team’s techniques and its preferred driving routes.

That’s how Timothy Colomer suspects he got blown up.

When Colomer started EOD training in 1999, most Marines considered it a demanding but obscure job. Much of his work stateside was disposing of dynamite found in old farmhouses. But once the Iraqi insurgency adopted the improvised explosive device (IED) as its weapon of choice, EOD soldiers became as indispensible as the minesweepers were in World War II. They also became targets. Thirteen EOD soldiers were killed in 2009, said Jim O’Neil, the executive director of the EOD Memorial Foundation. Seven of them were Marines like Colomer.

“It’s an extremely risky profession,” said Mark Boal, who wrote the screenplay for The Hurt Locker, based partly on his experiences as a journalist reporting on EOD soldiers in Iraq. “Not everybody would choose to disarm bombs and be that close to death for a living.”

In Iraq, Colomer’s team spent its days waiting for calls to come in from the field, like firemen. Colomer says that, in a typical 24-hour period, his team was sent out to investigate about 10 or 15 cases.

There are a limitless number of places an insurgent could hide an IED. He could hide one in under a pile of trash. In a culvert. He could stuff it inside the carcass of a cow, a donkey, even a person. One afternoon, Colomer’s team was on a road between Fallujah and Habbaniyah called Route Michigan. They saw a dead body on the left side of the road. “Iraqi people in general aren’t obese,” Colomer said. “But this guy—I don’t mean to make light of it—was way fat. He just looked different. He had a slim face, he had very slim arms, very slim legs. But a very thick, bulbous-type torso.” There was a bright orange material visible at the point where the man’s shirt met his pants. His body was hiding a bomb.

The first rule of an EOD solider is to try and stay in your vehicle, the heavy-metal womb that protects you from explosions. So as Colomer watched, a vehicle called a buffalo, which has a fork-like device on its front end, tore at the man’s body until the bomb was revealed. Colomor and his team then used plastic explosives to literally blow up the man’s body. “It was pretty nasty to sight to behold,” he said.

Between calls, Colomer and his team enjoyed a relatively sedate life, smoking cigars and watching The Family Guy. The barracks were full of DVDs sent by well-meaning church groups—any TV show, any movie you wanted to see. (Colomer asked me to express his thanks to anyone who sent them.)

He said that by end of his tour he felt like the Iraqi insurgency was more sophisticated but simply running out of ordnance. Early in the winter of 2006, Colomer and his team crouched not far from a device that had been discovered by a river in Habbaniyah. When the device exploded, it sprayed out what looked like confetti. It turns out an insurgent had accidentally picked up a round stuffed with American “local-awareness” leaflets—the papers that tell Iraqis when the curfew is, where to get flu shots, and so forth. The insurgent had made a pro-America propaganda bomb.

On December 11, 2006, Timothy Colomer got blown up. He was riding in a 14-ton vehicle called an MRAP on a remote road surrounded by date groves. The insurgents had planted a bomb beneath that road, and it exploded directly under his seat. Colomer says the bomb was later estimated to contain 150 to 200 pounds of explosives. The explosion pushed Colomer’s vehicle a full 10 feet to the side.

Colomer was unconscious, he later learned, for 30 seconds, maybe a minute. He suffered spinal compression, and had a traumatic brain injury, slight fractures on his arms, and broken ribs. He finished out his tour behind the wire, as an EOD supervisor, and went home in April 2007. “I lost some height if you want to hear something crazy,” he said. “I was six feet tall. Now I’m five-ten.”

The Hurt Locker ends with its hero, played by Jeremy Renner, going back to Iraq on a starcrossed quest to defuse more bombs. It felt as though the filmmakers had moved away from realistic-if-enhanced script to tack on an unbelievable Hollywood ending. I told Colomer I assumed nothing like that had ever crossed his mind.

“No, it actually did, constantly, and it still does,” he said. Colomer was set to re-enlist in the Marine Corps two or three times but relented after an intervention by his wife, Samantha, and his doctor, who warned of permanent brain damage. These days, Colomer teaches young soldiers how to dismantle IEDs, which he says provides enough of an outlet, barely, to keep him from going back to Iraq.

“I hear all the time about guys I know, who are personal friends of mine, who are injured or killed by the same insurgency that I was fighting. You never feel like you did enough.”

He added, “I keep my blood thinned with rage and coffee right now.”

The scenes from The Hurt Locker that struck Colomer as the most relatable were those showing an EOD soldier struggling to adjust to life back home: a man learning to walk freely down the street after being in a place where danger lurks under every pile of trash.

“It was amazing, because I was still in that state of mind for…you know what? I still haven’t 100 percent gotten over it. For a good six months to a year, driving along the road, I was eyeballing things on the side of the road.”

“I’d drive around certain things—piles of garbage, maybe a car that was stopped.”

“I still have trust issues with large crowds of people because I can’t control them. You go to Walmart right before Christmas, normal people want to rip their hair out.”

“I want to rip my hair out because I don’t trust anybody around me.”

Colomer added, “I’ve got this feeling in the back of my head that somebody wants to kill me.”

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Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast. His story about his grandfather’s softball career is in The Best American Sports Writing of 2009.