Former Petty Officer First Class Kristine Hawn, an Iraq war veteran, learned how to dismantle improvised explosive devices during U.S. Navy  training sessions. —Contributed Photo
Former Petty Officer First Class Kristine Hawn, an Iraq war veteran, learned how to dismantle improvised explosive devices during U.S. Navy training sessions. —Contributed Photo
Former Petty Officer First Class Kristine Hawn, an Iraq war veteran, has seen the highs and lows of an extended military career, including in a specialty field rarely visited by servicemen, much less servicewomen.

After graduating from Butternut High School in 2003, Hawn set her sights on a Navy classification of explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) diver. Navy EOD personnel are experts in explosives, diving, and parachuting, as well as tactical skills of a combat fighter, according to one related website about this specialty.

She was not the only family member to answer the call to duty. Hawn’s twin brother, Robert, signed up with the Army two weeks after 9/11 (Sept. 11, 2001). 

“He was 17 at the time. Mom had to write a note (approving the enlistment),” she said. “Four of my five brothers have served honorably in the military. Two continue to serve on submarines and in the Air Force. The one brother who did not serve was busy working with youth from many different backgrounds in the Madison area — he simply served our country in a different capacity.”

As a valedictorian at Butternut, Hawn had a full scholarship waiting for her. However, her sense of duty prevailed.

“During my walk through the UW-LaCrosse campus, I felt I didn’t belong there,” she said. Across the parking lot was a Navy recruiting station.

‘No women’

Hawn signed up for a four-year hitch, starting boot camp Sept. 3, 2003, initially eyeing a classification of cryptologic technician (CT). 

“At the time, the EOD wasn’t available for women in boot camp,” she said, “although a very few were allowed from the fleet.” 

The CT community performs a wide range of tasks in support of the national intelligence-gathering effort, with an emphasis on cryptology and signal intelligence related products. During her boot camp training at Great Lakes Illinois, she attended a recruiting section for special operations. The video ended with an admonishment that “no women are allowed.”

“Everyone looked at me like I was insane,” she said when she walked up to volunteer. But she challenged the presenter, saying the EOD class description said nothing about women not being allowed to join.

Despite his misgivings, he allowed her to sign up for special operations screening. The following week, she encountered another male Chief Petty Officer (SEAL) who refused to allow her to train. She came back the next day to request training, but no luck. When she showed up the third day, the instructor was furious. Fortunately, a Senior Chief (EOD) intervened, but told her that her rating would not allow her to cross over.

Hawn then opted to attend military police training (PT) in Lackland, Texas. She had excelled in PT at boot camp training and was in excellent physical condition. 

“I was near the top in my class on running and sit-ups,” she said. 

Again, she was not allowed to train with the special operations men. But she got in some much needed in-pool work when Air Force special operations allowed her to train with them. She graduated top in her class from military police school, earning expert at pistol and rifle as well as being a top physical performer.

Tough training 

Her training included a time as a “mud pup.” She learned to repel, cast and fast-rope from a helicopter and conducted her first detonation of explosives. 

From an initial field of 16 mud pups, she and seven others survived to go on to Basic Navy EOD dive school. This consisted of nine weeks in Panama City, Fla., where candidates learned basic scuba diving, as well as advanced re-breather diving using the MK16.

Admittedly, she says, “I was never the fastest swimmer.” 

Still, she excelled in the physical conditioning, being able to lift her own body weight (120 pounds at the time).

“For me the most strenuous (part of dive school) was in-water training,” she said. “Like walking across the pool bottom carrying a cinder block. Drown proofing, that was also difficult.’

During the pool training, recruits endured “pool-hits.” Instructors would yank masks and tanks off the recruits. They would also toss and turn the students around underwater in order to cause a sense of disorientation.

“You would then have to go through emergency procedures to get all your stuff back on,” she said.

Reaching goal

Finally, Hawn reached her goal of attending EOD school. Forty-two weeks in which training shifted from physical to mental: learning how to safely dismantle unexploded munitions, including land mines, missiles and IEDs (improvised explosive devices).

“The learning curve was steep,” she said, “especially for the missiles.” 

Navy EOD candidates take an extra school to focus on underwater explosives such as torpedoes, unexploded underwater ordnance and underwater search techniques.

The rigorous training continued with three weeks at Fort Benning, Ga., for basic parachute training, followed by three weeks at EOD tactic training at Coronado, Calif., with students learning tactical skills needed to deploy with Special Operations Forces.

Deployed to Iraq

In April 2007, Hawn deployed to Iraq, where she was assigned to a three-member mobile EOD team in the troubled Al Anbar province.

“That’s when they called it the Wild West. Definitely a lot of action,” she said.

During Operation Iraqi Freedom, Al Anbar province saw some of the U.S. military’s hardest fighting in decades and was home to an entrenched anti-American insurgency (mainly consisting of Iranian Republican Guards and Syrian Special Forces).

Her team was assigned to First Battalion, Third Marine Expeditionary Force. It was there she encountered another officer reluctant to accept her in a combat role.

“It wasn’t personal,” she said, “just my (female) presence made a lot of work for him.”

While there were porta potties, there was no place at first for her to shower. Undoubtedly, the officer didn’t want her potential death to blemish his record, she added. 

Danger everywhere

“One of the main missions was IED calls,” she said. 

A security team was assigned to their team. Typical calls would be an explosive device placed to harm or kill Allied forces; other times it was placed next to a business to coerce the owner.

“Some days we had so many (calls) that we couldn’t get back inside the wire, or base. Working night and day,” she said.

Hawn personally disarmed six IEDs by hand.

On post-blast investigations, they would gather up the evidence of blast, looking for signatures of the bomb maker or cells, normally Iranian (MOIS) or Syrian — type of explosives, the container, detonating mechanism and fingerprints. 

Hawn noted that terrorists, commonly highly trained Iranians (MOIS) and Syrians, would kidnap children of locals to force the adults to make and place the bombs.

“There were several times we would roll up on a hostile scene,” she said. “Our security team would break away and secure the scene. We would meet up with the on-scene commander for info on any IEDs, blast sites, caches and of course, the current action. The firefight never lasted long once we would arrive. I don’t think that had anything to do with us, I think it was more the intimidation of seeing reinforcements coming in.

“We were also shot at while on a post-blast call and again on an IED call. The post-blast was on a 7-ton truck. It was still burning and crumpled inside the shot hole. All three of us were collecting evidence on this call, because it was so difficult to get in close. The flames were so hot, the smoke was choking us, and we could hardly see through teary eyes and black glasses. But the worst part were the engine hoses popping in the fire. They would spew boiling liquids erratically and unpredictably through the air. 

“The noise of the fire was deafening. To the point that it was difficult to even hear the radio in our earpieces. So we missed the first warning from our security team. ‘...Vic 2... fire ... back!’

“Chief stepped back to get the comms. That’s when he noticed the little explosions in the sand around him.

“‘Take cover!’ he screamed as he ran behind the burning vehicle. ‘Shots fired! Take cover!’ Stephen and I dropped what we had and followed him. But we were still in open desert, with the truck fire acting as a spotlight on us. I never ran as fast as I did that night back to our up-armored Jerrv (Joint Engineering Rapid Response Vehicle)!

“Once inside, we let security know we were good. They could pinpoint where shots were coming from, over the berm. Two Humvees drove right up the berm and found the weapons in the sand, with several men running through the village at night.

“It would’ve been foolish to follow the men. It could’ve been a trap at worst. At best, we would’ve roused the whole village and not even known the faces we were looking for,” said Hawn.

Hardest calls

Hawn said the hardest calls were those where the team had to literally pick up the pieces of Allied forces or civilians after a bombing.

“There were extreme emotions, panic,” she recalled of the aftermath of bomb blasts that hit U.S. Forces. “Some of the marines were furious; seeing their best friends blown up.” 

One IED explosion took the life of her team member, Sgt. Mike Tayatao. 

“They did everything they could to save him, but before the medevac got there, he passed.”

Typically when civilians were targeted, the scene was surreal, she said. 

“When we would go on a post-blast, there was no reaction from the civilians. They were in shock and disbelief. They would look at us like we were aliens,” she said.

Her future husband, Jeremiah Perron, whom she had met in Guam aboard the USS Kittyhawk, was also stationed in Iraq at the time. He, too, was an expert in EOD.

“He was about three months into his deployment with the Green Beret teams when I was deployed to Iraq,” she said. “I consider myself incredibly lucky about this arrangement, because I was able to call him on our satellite phones about once a week, oftentimes after very difficult combat experiences. It was remarkably good for my soul to be able to speak openly about the terrible events that occurred and my thoughts and feelings about them. I knew he knew. He understood.”

The response to her presence was a different picture for most Iraqi men, who viewed her uncovered hair and ears as a grave affront to their religious beliefs. 

“I forgot the Iraqi word for whore, but I heard it a lot,” she said.

The Iraqi women were more accepting of her. She would remove her helmet while interacting with them to show them an American face. (Marines wearing body armor, armed and wearing sunglasses and facemasks indeed presented a threatening picture.) After her team responded to a blast targeting civilians, she and her team were invited by some women to share a meal.

“It was one of the most delicious meals I have ever had,” she exclaimed.

Despite being the only female at her base, she did not experience any sexual harassment. 

“All the Marines were wonderful,” she said. “I had no issues while being there. Too, I was always with my team members. I had to trust my team members with my life.”

Most members of her security team were married.

“I got to see so many pictures of cute kids from my security team,” she said, laughing.

Deployed to Vietnam

Hawn’s military career took another interesting turn in 2008 after leaving Iraq in December 2007.

“I was honored with a JPAC mission (Joint Personnel Accounting Command) to Vietnam. This was by far the highlight of my career. 

“Our mission was to go off of intel and set up an archeological dig, looking for remains of men MIA from the Vietnam War. It is very uncommon to find anything anymore simply because the soil is so acidic; it eats away all remains including bones, which hold DNA. But we found our guy! He was a young gunner whose helicopter went down. The rest of the crew was pulled dead from the wreckage, but he must have survived long enough to go several hundred yards from the crash site.

“We only found three cents and a rosary in what was left of a pocket; a bone fragment, and a tooth fragment. The DNA was pulled from the tooth and he was positively identified!

“I’ll never forget the feeling that soared through me as I stood with the rest of the JPAC team, in our dress uniforms, saluting the full coffin, covered by the American flag, as it was loaded onto the Honor Flight home. There are no words for that emotion!”

Final salute

After nearly nine years in the military, Hawn became pregnant with her first child, Aden. Although she was on track to become an officer, “The moment I held my son in my arms I knew I couldn’t deploy,” she said. “I cried every day I had to put him in daycare.”

She and her husband agreed it was time for her to give the military life a final salute.

“I loved my time in the military, but I don’t regret my decision at all,” she said. 

Hawn separated from the military on Feb. 6, 2012, having served for eight years and five months.

Along the way, the Senior EOD tech received various medals and citations, including a Joint Service Commendation Medal, Navy/Marine Corps Achievement Medal (2) with “V” Star, Combat Action Ribbon, and Iraq Campaign Medal. Her duties as Senior EOD tech in 2009 at the Naval School Explosive Ordnance Disposal NAVSCOLEOD included demolitions and burn operations supervisor, range safety supervisor, and scuba diving supervisor.

Her husband, who was an officer and a Master EOD tech in the Navy, continues his work in that field, but as a civilian. She and her husband and their two children live in Minocqua.

May is a special month for her. Not only does the month hold Mother’s Day; the first Saturday in May is also National Explosive Ordnance Disposal Day, held to honor members of the U.S. military who risk their lives in disposing of explosives. Names of EOD personnel who have died that year are inscribed on the Memorial Wall on the grounds of NAVSCOLEOD command at Elgin Air Force Base in Florida.

Since 9/11, about 150 bomb technicians in all branches of the service have been killed and 250 others injured, according to the EOD Warrior Foundation, a Florida nonprofit group.