CORRY STATION NAVY BASE, Fla. – Navy Lt. Mark Dye hadn't seen combat before a helicopter dropped him at the deadliest forward operating base for roadside bomb attacks in northern Iraq with an urgent task.
Improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, had killed 22 soldiers from the 101st Airborne at Forward Operating Base McHenry in the past seven months. Other Army units were suffering similar casualties in May 2006 and it was getting worse. Troops were finding an average of 18 roadside bombs a day.
Dye and 300 other shipboard electronics warfare specialists were charged with teaching troops how to defuse the bombs by jamming the electronic signals the insurgents used to detonate them.
"They called on a Wednesday and told me I was leaving (for Iraq) on Saturday," said the 38-year-old Dye, who had spent his career on ships. "It was the right decision. Electronic warfare was our background, what we did it for a living."
They called themselves "sand sailors," and they did their job well by reducing IED fatalities at their bases. Monthly U.S. troop deaths from IEDs have dropped since reaching a high of 90 in May to 17 last month, in part because of their efforts, the military said in awarding Bronze Stars to Dye and others.
Army Capt. Matthew Rapp said soldiers had the jamming equipment, but no one had taught them to use it properly or ensured that it was being taken on patrols until Dye and the other sailors arrived.
"(The equipment) was being issued in theater and we were expected to take this thing and figure out what makes it work. It was a severe learning curve," said Rapp, whose platoon was enduring almost daily IED blasts.
Electronic warfare specialists are trained at the Navy's electronic warfare and cryptological training headquarters at Corry Station. It's an unassuming base on the outskirts of more famous Pensacola Naval Air Station — home to the Navy's Blue Angels flight demonstration team and the initial training base for generations of Naval aviators including Sen. John McCain.
"You are not going to see our people on the recruiting posters like you do the pilots," said Capt. Connie Frizzell, who oversees the training. "A lot of what we do is either behind the scenes or behind closed doors."
Increasingly, though, the sailors are being recognized for their efforts to save troops.
One honored was Senior Chief Terry Thomas, an electronic warfare specialist who is scheduled to return to Iraq next month. He was stationed at Forward Operating Base Kalsu in south-central Iraq in the spring of 2006.
When Thomas reported, the soldiers and Marines at Kalsu had several pieces of jamming equipment sitting unused.
In some cases, the soldiers took the jamming devices on patrols thinking that it was working when it was not because it had not been properly maintained. In other cases, they left the equipment behind because they didn't want to hassle with complicated technology, Thomas said.
"The biggest battle I faced was they didn't understand how it worked," he said. "We conducted the training on how to properly utilize it and made it a way of life."
Thomas said the technology works by "basically providing a protective bubble around a vehicle," jamming incoming signals and blocking the remote detonation of bombs.
To convince the soldiers and Marines the equipment could work, Thomas and Dye had to leave the relative safety of their bases and go on regular patrols with the troops into surrounding towns.
"I'm not used to being that close to the bad guy," Thomas said.
On Dye's first night outside of the base, his convoy hit a cluster of IEDs and the jamming technology stopped the chain-reaction explosion. Part of the first vehicle was hit, but no one was injured.
It was the first in a series of successes that led the troops to rely on the technology.
But the enemy always adapted, sometimes using simpler devices. Insurgents began placing various types of bombs common in Vietnam and World War II that detonate when stepped on or driven over.
"The only way you are going to be able to defeat it is to see it," Thomas said.
At Dye's base, he worked with the Army to increase the rate of discovering IEDs from 52 percent to 92 percent.
But the 78 soldiers and Marines from their bases who died in IED explosions during their deployments proves the job is not done, the men said.
"I took every death very personally," Dye said. "There's a competitive nature in me and that's my job, to save them from IEDs. If an IED got through, I lost."