OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea --
Tuning out the pounding of his own heartbeat, nerves tense as a young Air Force explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) officer disarms bombs in some of Southwest Asia’s most dangerous warzones.
A sudden increased heart rate and blood flow kicks in as adrenaline rush reverberates through his body. Internally, things are chaotic, but the madness is masked by the man’s calm, humorous demeanor, which is a key character trait to his life-saving tactics.
Despite his setback of Tourette syndrome, which is a nervous system disorder involving repetitive movements or unwanted sounds, his physical tics didn’t prevent his ability to neutralize bombs from ‘tick-tick-booming.’
It takes patience, finesse, and skill to make a career out of defusing bombs, and for Lt. Col. Kelly Hannum, doing so while coping with Tourette’s has been no small feat.
“Tourette syndrome is just a part of me, it doesn’t define me,” said Hannum, 51st Mission Support Group deputy commander. “I’m a proud father, husband, military officer, engineer and EOD member – those are the biggest parts of my life that I embrace and want to be defined by.”
Despite noticing behavioral changes as a third grader, Hannum didn’t allow his strange laughs, noises and movements caused by the condition stop his ambitions.
Fueled by his passion of building things and problem-solving stemmed from working alongside his father’s firewood business and emulating 1980s television series’ MacGyver’s improvisation skills, Hannum incorporated these skills throughout his 21-year Air Force career.
Although he’s served multiple roles ranging from civil engineer to an instructor, EOD has been the most rewarding occupation.
“I loved EOD and the opportunity of being around amazing, likeminded people that loved solving problems,” said Hannum. “There’s a thrill of figuring out how to safeguard and remove hazards from dangerous areas. Whether by blowing up threats or securing them to move out of harm’s way, finding out the right way to save lives and protect assets was a rewarding adrenaline rush.”
“The sense of importance and responsibility I felt as an EOD flight commander (downrange) was a unique experience,” Hannum added. “There were a lot of good and bad days but if I could help someone get home safely to their families made it all worthwhile. Those were the happiest moments I got from the job.”
When he wasn’t cutting red wire on explosives or sketching blueprints for infrastructures to be constructed on base, Hannum valued taking time out to raise awareness about his disorder.
“Tourette Syndrome isn’t something I can easily hide, so I decided my best strategy was to be open about it,” said Hannum. “By being open and explaining to people ahead of time what they might see, they are more likely to ask me questions rather than try to speculate about my condition.”
“One of my career’s most amazing experiences came when I was an instructor at the Air Force Civil Engineer School,” Hannum added. “In my introduction to a class of new Civil Engineer officers, I told the students that I had Tourette’s, explained the condition and told them about the tics they might see from me. During a break, one of the students came up and asked if I really had Tourette. I said that I did, and he confided that he did as well.”
Citing that Tourette’s has made him a more proactive and engaged leader, Hannum relishes the opportunities to converse and see the 2,800 men and women of the 51st Mission Support Group. Here at Osan, he assists the MSG commander in their objectives on focusing on readiness and ensuring base infrastructure and base services are ready to support the ‘Fight Tonight’ mission.
He also has been heavily involved with a Tourette syndrome support group through the years.
Twenty one years ago, it was hard to imagine what would be in store for Hannum’s pursuit in starting an Air Force career. Although Tourette’s has warranted infrequent instances of members being accepted and deemed fit for duty, Hannum encourages those to try, hoping that his story will be a beacon of light for anyone overcoming the challenges of Tourette’s.