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Page last updated at 00:12 GMT, Monday, 24 May 2010 01:12 UK
British bomb expert's widow recalls 'he was so tired'

Oz Schmid
Oz Schmid died while defusing his 65th bomb in Afghanistan

Staff Sgt Olaf "Oz" Schmid, a highly trained member of the military's elite bomb disposal unit, died while attempting to defuse a bomb in Afghanistan. His widow, Christina Schmid, has been looking into her late husband's final days and the pressures faced by his unit.


On 29 October last year, my husband called me from Afghanistan. He was due home in just a few days after being out there for more than five months.

He sounded so very tired.

He said he had not really slept for four days and told me, not for the first time, that there simply were not enough of them.

Oz was one of an elite, highly-trained band of bomb disposal experts. They are the ones who have the dangerous task of defusing the home-made improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that litter Afghanistan.

During that phone call, Oz told me that the work was both relentless and overwhelming.

Christina and Oz Schmid
Christina Schmid wanted to know more about Oz's work

In an earlier letter, he had told me about living rough for five weeks.

"Staying alive is like a lottery," he wrote. "And patrolling the Afghan badlands is playing Russian roulette with your feet."

My husband, who was 30 when he died and had been in the Army since he was 16, believed that his job was to preserve life at all costs and he was very proud of the work he had done and the lives he had saved.

He was considered one of the best explosive experts in the world. He earned about £35,000 a year for the job he did.

Targeted

His work with the military had taken him to Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo and, of course, two tours in Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, soldiers are three times more likely to be killed by an IED than by gunfire. Oz wrote to me that he faced the double threat of defusing the bombs while being targeted by Taliban snipers.

"Dealing with bombs is the easy bit. It's getting shot at whilst doing the job which tends to make me run like hell," he wrote.

In his letters to me, Oz seemed to be struggling more and more with the workload
Christina Schmid

In 2008, the threats from IEDs grew by 400%. During Oz's 2009 tour, that threat rose another 400%.

In Helmand alone, where most of Britain's forces are based, 450 IEDs are triggered or made safe each month - that is 14 every day.

Oz told me of the daily encounters with people who had lost limbs, suffered other horrendous injuries or been killed by IEDs and he said it served as daily motivation for him in his work, which he did without the protection of a full bomb suit because of the extreme heat they faced.

And it is not just British soldiers getting hurt or killed, last year alone, 2,500 Afghan civilians were killed or injured by homemade bombs.

'Need a break'

Oz lost a good friend in Warrant Officer Gary O'Donnell, who was killed in September 2008 and he took it very hard. Several of his colleagues left the unit as a result.

In total, four of these highly trained experts have died in Afghanistan.

In his letters to me, Oz seemed to be struggling more and more with the workload.

His willpower was coming and going and he was flaking at that point, saying: "I do need a break from this, I need to step back because I need to recharge."

Christina Schmid
Christina fulfilled a promise to her husband to celebrate his achievements

It was at this point that the little cracks were beginning to show.

In one photo of him taken in August 2009, I know just from looking at it that he is tired, because I can just see it in his face.

In researching this story, I spoke to Colonel Stuart Tootal, who commanded the 3rd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment during some of the fiercest fighting in Helmand. He resigned from the Army in 2007 after voicing concerns about the welfare of his soldiers.

He told me of the dangers of soldiers being asked to work under those conditions without a real break.

"Their performance could degrade, they will be less alert and they might miss things and so that's why risk increases," he said.

Promise kept

But in Oz's case, with so few experts available and an endless stream of homemade bombs to defuse, sticking to the guidelines on rest time was not always an option.

In what was to be our last phone call, Oz told me that all he wanted was to see me when he stepped off the plane that weekend.

Instead, I was joining the other mourners on the streets of Wootton Bassett.

I was there, determined to keep a promise that I had made to my husband.

Oz had told me that if his day came, I was not to be in bits on the floor. He had said: "I want you to be absolutely proud of me and know how hard I've worked and I want you to be able to stand there and be appreciative and to show your love for me and be positive as you can about what I've achieved and what I've done."

In remembering my husband and his fellow bomb disposal experts, and in researching the story of his unit, that is what I have tried to do.

Panorama: A Very British Hero, BBC One, Monday, 24 May at 2030 BST.



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