SAN DIEGO (AP) - The job is one of the most dangerous in the Marine Corps.
The four Marines killed Wednesday while clearing unexploded ordnance at California's Camp Pendleton were bomb removal technicians. It is one of the few positions in which the Marine Corps allows team members to quit at any time. That's because their mental focus could mean the difference between life or death, either for themselves or their fellow troops.
Few quit, despite the inherent risks that come with finding and getting rid of unexploded munitions - whether on the battlefield or on a U.S. base, according to former bomb technicians.
The four were killed around 11 a.m. during a routine sweep to make a range safer for future training exercises at Camp Pendleton in San Diego County, said a Marine official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. There was no live firing on the range at the time.
Base officials said they would not release details until an investigation into the cause of the accident is concluded. Officials planned to release the names Thursday evening of those killed, per the Marine Corps policy that withholds the identities of the dead for 24 hours after their relatives have been notified.
The bomb disposal community is a small, tight-knit one like no other within the Marine Corps. They are bonded by their fearlessness, mental strength and deep ties from losing so many members over the years, say former bomb technicians.
The Corps currently has 715 explosive ordnance disposal technicians. During the Iraq war, Marines lost 20 bomb technicians, and another 24 have been killed in Afghanistan.
The last fatal accident for a Marine bomb technician in the United States was about two decades ago, when one was killed while doing a range sweep at Twenty-Nine Palms Marine Corps base in Southern California, according to the Marine Corps.
Retired Marine Gunnery Sgt. Brian Meyer said he was drawn to what is considered to be one of the Marine Corps' most dangerous jobs because of the challenge. Bomb technicians work in a team but are often entrusted to make decisions in the field on their own, such as whether it is safe enough to move unexploded ordnance or diffuse a roadside bomb.
Meyer was injured while trying to dispose of an IED in Helmand Province in Afghanistan on March 14, 2011. The homemade bomb blew off his right hand, right leg and three fingers on his left hand. He's lost more than a dozen fellow bomb technicians and knows about 15 others who have suffered injuries, like himself.
"It's hard to pick out one specific reason why I wanted to do this job," he said, adding that he would do it all again. "It's not a job in which you call your supervisor to make a decision. You're often the expert. You make the calls and work independently. There's a lot of trust placed in you. You're part of an elite group."