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PACAF Airman awarded Bronze Star

PALIWODA, Iraq -- Waiting for Explosive Ordinance Disposal to confirm the scene is safe, Staff Sgt Christopher Hawks (front left) and Master Sgt Albert Schneider (front right), prepare to collect evidence and obtain pictures.  The EOD team from Paliwoda and Schneider's Weapons Intelligence Team had just arrived at the scene of two Improvised Explosive Devices detonations targeting civilian vehicles on Main Supply Route Tampa.  (Courtesy photo)

PALIWODA, Iraq -- Waiting for Explosive Ordinance Disposal to confirm the scene is safe, Staff Sgt Christopher Hawks (front left) and Master Sgt Albert Schneider (front right), prepare to collect evidence and obtain pictures. The EOD team from Paliwoda and Schneider's Weapons Intelligence Team had just arrived at the scene of two Improvised Explosive Devices detonations targeting civilian vehicles on Main Supply Route Tampa. (Courtesy photo)

PALIWODA, Iraq -- Waiting for Explosive Ordinance Disposal to confirm the scene is safe, Staff Sgt Christopher Hawks (left) and Master Sgt Albert Schneider (right), prepare to collect evidence and obtain pictures.  The EOD team from Paliwoda and Schneider's Weapons Intelligence Team had just arrived at the scene of two Improvised Explosive Devices detonations targeting civilian vehicles on Main Supply Route Tampa.  (Courtesy photo)

PALIWODA, Iraq -- Waiting for Explosive Ordinance Disposal to confirm the scene is safe, Staff Sgt Christopher Hawks (left) and Master Sgt Albert Schneider (right), prepare to collect evidence and obtain pictures. The EOD team from Paliwoda and Schneider's Weapons Intelligence Team had just arrived at the scene of two Improvised Explosive Devices detonations targeting civilian vehicles on Main Supply Route Tampa. (Courtesy photo)

HICKAM AIR FORCE BASE, Hawaii -- A "six-month adrenaline rush."

That's how Master Sgt. Al Schneider describes his deployment to Iraq.

Assigned to Head Quarters Pacific Air Forces Civil Engineer Directorate as the command Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) superintendent, the Louisville, Ky., native left here last May for combat-skills training and set his boots on the ground in Iraq early in August.

He completed his deployment in mid-February and returned to find he'd been awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his achievements.

Assigned to Forward Operating Base Paliwoda, Iraq, located just west of Balad Air Base near Baghdad, Sergeant Schneider was the team leader for a Weapons Intelligence Team that included one Soldier and two other Airmen. His team logged over 300 missions with no errors and no coalition troop deaths in his area of responsibility - a considerable achievement.

Gen. Paul V. Hester, commander of Pacific Air Forces, presented the medal April 9. Sergeant Schneider was surprised and pleased with the honor, but he is quick to point out that "it was a team effort."

Weapons Intelligence Teams are a key part of counter-terrorism efforts in Iraq today. The primary mission, according to Sergeant Schneider, is "collecting information about enemy tactics, techniques, and procedures to identify, track, and eliminate the bomb-makers - the people behind the scenes who are actually building the bombs."

Improvised explosive devices are considered the greatest threat in Iraq today, and Sergeant Schneider and his term were responsible for collecting forensic data from IEDs. If they were lucky, the team members arrived before the detonation, and the Explosive Ordnance Division team dismantled the IED with no harm to anyone. Most often, however, Sergeant Schneider and his team arrived after the fact and gathered what they could find among the debris.

"We collected evidence and took photos and up-channeled everything we learned to Multi-National Corps-Iraq," he says.

MNC-I, headquartered by the U.S. Army at Camp Victory, Baghdad, is the tactical unit responsible for command and control of operations throughout Iraq. MNC-I's Combined Explosive Exploitation Cell analyzed the evidence and looked for trends.

Weapons intelligence collected by Sergeant Schneider's team and others allows officials to "develop countermeasures to how insurgents conduct their IED operations," he says. "It saves lives. The more information we can get to the Soldiers" - about enemy tactics, techniques, and procedures - "the better prepared they'll be."

The best part of the deployment was the camaraderie, "going out on the missions with EOD and the security element," he says. "We did everything as a unit. We lived and worked together. It was a real band of brothers. It was pretty sexy."

And the team responded to numerous calls that the sergeant refers to as "spectacular," including one incident that features prominently in his Bronze Star citation. His team's vehicle was the target of an IED that exploded near them. There was minor damage but no one was injured. The insurgents who detonated the IED were still in the area and fired from their own car at the team, which had dismounted.

"We returned fire and disabled their vehicle. They took off on foot," he says. "The responding security element caught three of the insurgents."

His team's success was readily apparent. "We were responsible for one of the biggest decreases in IED activity along an alternate supply route" near Paliwoda, he says. "It used to be heavily attacked. Very dangerous." "We were responsible for one of the biggest decreases in IED activity along an alternate supply route" near Paliwoda, he says. "It used to be heavily attacked. Very dangerous."

Regular patrols helped his team determine the patterns of IED placement along the route. "We suggested to commanders where to place their forces to mitigate the impact" of such devices along the supply route, rendering it safe for travel.

The IED threat remains serious, however, and there were too many times that the team arrived on a scene where an Iraqi civilian had detonated a device and killed himself in the process, Sergeant Schneider says. "An IED causes tremendous, tremendous damage. It's nasty. We found some gruesome scenes."

He feels fortunate that his own team successfully completed its missions without mishap, but not everyone was so lucky. Six members of his close-knit community lost their lives during his deployment, including three Air Force EOD technicians who were killed while conducting counter-IED procedures; and three WIT personnel - two Airmen and one Soldier - who were members of another team.

It was the hardest part of the deployment for him. "It was devastating," he says of the loss. "It still hurts."

In spite of that potential for danger, however, Sergeant Schneider would not swap his job for any other. He has spent all of his 17 years of Air Force service in the Explosive Ordnance Disposal career field.

"It's all I've ever done. I love it," he says. His experiences in Iraq "validated all my training through the years," a good feeling.

A veteran of numerous deployments around the world, this was his first time in Iraq, but it won't be his last. "I'll probably be going back before the end of the year," he says. "I can't wait."

He couldn't do what he loves without the support of his wife Kim. "She's as much a part of the Air Force as I am," he says. His teenage sons Nick and Codi are equally supportive. "They like hearing my stories."

He has some good ones to tell.