JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas – For Chief Master Sgt. William Ewing, who recently retired as Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center’s Det. 9 senior enlisted adviser, a selfless decision to join an explosive ordnance disposal team on a mission in Iraq became an experience he will endure the rest of his life.
With his replacement already in country, then master sergeant Ewing opted to assist “Team Lima” on one final mission before returning home to Indian Head, Maryland.
On that fateful day of Jan. 7, 2007, three members of the team – Tech. Sgt. Timothy Weiner and Senior Airmen Daniel Miller and Elizabeth Loncki – were killed while checking a vehicle for explosives near Al Mahmudiyah. The three deployed Airmen from the 775th Civil Engineer Squadron at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, were in close proximity of the vehicle when an improvised explosive device detonated, killing them and a U.S. Army soldier, while severely injuring Ewing who was a distance away urging market goers to stay away from the vehicle.
Ewing, who eventually recovered from his injuries to continue his career, went on to earn chief master sergeant stripes. He recalled the life-changing event during an interview just prior to his Dec. 6 retirement ceremony at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois.
“One of my teams was out on a planned op (operation). Iraq Team Lima – Tim, Dan and Liz – were with me on station that Sunday morning when we received a call for assistance,” Ewing said. “Iraqi police chased a vehicle to a nearby marketplace in Al Mahmudiyah. When the driver ran off, the Iraqi police found a suspicious article under the vehicle.”
“We’d been there since July (2006) and my replacement had arrived so I knew this would be the last time I’d have a chance to go out with the team on this deployment,” he added.
When the team arrived, the EOD robot was deployed to the van a few hundred yards away. However, the team was unable to determine with any level of certainty whether an IED was present, so a decision was made to have a mounted recon inspect the van.
“At this point, Tim, Dan and Liz were nearest the vehicle. I was about 20 feet away directing the Iraqi people in the market to move a distance away,” said Ewing. “Next thing I know, I’m wondering why I’m on the ground face up and looking up at the sky. The first thing I notice is I can’t get up and I think my leg or foot is gone because I’m looking around and think I see it on the ground and I don’t think it’s completely attached.”
He said his first thoughts were about the team.
“The medic arrives and the first thing I ask him is how Tim, Dan and Liz are doing. He says Liz is alive. So I ask again and he says the same thing.”
That’s when it sank in. The reality and gravity of the situation unfolds for Ewing – Tim and Dan are dead. At least Liz was still alive, he thought.
“Liz goes into surgery before I do and I remember thinking, how much worse can it get? After surgery, I’m in the recovery area and find out Liz didn’t make it,” Ewing said. “She’d lost too much blood.(Medical Center) at Andrews AFB, Maryland. Finally, that’s when I completely broke down, when Felicia, my wife, arrived,” he said.
Although difficult at first, speaking about the incident and sharing his story helps Ewing bear the burden of such loss. “I do it so others can remember Tim, Dan and Liz. I have an obligation to carry and share their memory,” he said.
Every year, the first weekend in May is a time of remembrance for members of the joint service EOD community. For Ewing, that first Saturday in May of 2007 was a difficult one.
“That’s when we added all the names of those killed throughout the year. I didn’t want to go, but Felicia told me it was the right thing to do. Tim, Dan and Liz’s names were going to be added,” he said. “Truthfully, I was scared. Getting to go there and meeting their families was major. I thought they’d hate me because I survived, but that was not the case. They appreciated the fact I was there. I know now it is because the remaining tie to them is me!”
Retiring two-months shy of a 30-year career, the former EOD functional manager takes time to speak to groups about resiliency and his ordeal. Now, thinking back, he sees things for what they truly are.
“You would think that I was helping families and friends heal from their loss. That every time I speak about it, I’m helping others, but the truth is they are helping me heal,” Ewing said. They are like little angels on your shoulder,” he said. “I’ll be doing something and I’ll stop and say to myself, ‘Hey, does this make sense? What would Tim, Dan and Liz think?’
“My fellow Airmen, my EOD brethren and my wife, they help me carry the burden. Now, I’m just looking forward to spending time with her and our daughters.”