Beyond the Blast: Boards for Bomb Techs and Wounded Warriors

Written by: R3’s Ken Martin, USN (ret.)

Few in the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Community or the military for that matter could have predicted the impact the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were going to have on IMG_0926 resizedour warriors and their families. With the IED being the enemy’s preferred weapon for over a decade, EOD found themselves at the forefront of the fight against insurgents and terrorists in both theatres and around the world. EOD’s success at countering the IED had the inevitable effect of making EOD high value targets for the enemy. EOD’s losses relative to the number of successful missions is low, but their losses relative to the size of the Joint Service EOD Community is high and the effects on family, friends, and fellow EOD Technicians cannot be overstated. Those whose lives are touched by the loss of an EOD Warrior “deal” with the loss in many ways, honoring that loss in their day to day lives, but also in many cases making extra efforts even if only in small ways to give back to the EOD Community and the EOD Warrior Foundation; both have provided such amazing support to the families of our fallen and injured. For many working to do something that can make even the smallest difference in others’ lives also helps with the healing process. In that spirit each year a small team get together in NW Florida to talk about heroes, surfing, tattoos and artwork.

A recently retired USN EOD Officer named Ken Martin has led the efforts on a custom surfboard collaborationIMG_1422 resized project designed, built, and donated to raise money and build awareness for the EOD Warrior Foundation[1].

Ken, an avid surfer and stand up paddler but self-admittedly having no particular artistic ability, collaborates with Jody Miller of Pathway Surfboards and Crystal Hays of Gulf Coast Professional Tattoo to design a custom board each year. Each surfboard is a unique work of art hand shaped by Jody with custom artwork by both Jody and Crystal. Themes for the surfboard are inspired through interactions and discussions with EOD Warriors past and present. It is a tremendous amount of tedious work and Jody and Crystal generously have donated their time and skills to say thanks for the service and sacrifices of our EOD men and women and others who have served and continue to serve.

This year, in addition to a longboard project sponsored for the last few years by R3 Strategic Support Group, the team decided to do something very special for an EOD Warrior and dual amputee. In October of 2012 Rob Easley lost both legs to an IED detonation while on foot patrol in Southern Afghanistan. Still recovering from his wounds and many surgeries Rob and his wife Megan attended the 2014 EOD Warrior Foundation auction where Rob bid and won the surfboard that year and expressed interest in getting out on the water once his recovery was complete. Ken Martin promised to help make that happen. Turns out his recovery was a long process and has taken three years to date, and included multiple surgeries to extend his femurs in order to be fitted for prosthetics. His last surgery and subsequent physical therapy wrapped up in the Fall of 2015. During that same timeframe Jody mastered his stand up paddle board (SUP) shaping techniques and decided to customize one for Rob. Stand up paddling has grown in popularity in recent years and has gained additional interest as one of many sports therapy options to enhance life balance along with physical therapy and counseling.

The overarching goal and underlying symbolism in the case of a dual bilateral above the knee amputee can be found in the name of the sport; it is “stand up” paddling, so howIMG_0898 resized better to share the sport than to adapt the equipment to accommodate one with prosthetics while skills and balance are refined. Much was at stake and the team wanted to get it right. The team researched prosthetics, physical therapy, adaptive sports concepts, and even visited Walter Reed Naval Hospital Physical Therapy and Prosthetics Departments to learn as much as possible in order to properly design a custom paddler stabilization system that would integrate with the SUP board and allow Rob to stand up on his short prosthetics while paddling the SUP board. IMG_0905 resizedA different approach was required for stand-up paddling than for some of the other board type adaptive sports such as wakeboarding or snowboarding. It wouldn’t do to anchor the paddler to the board, rather it would be better to provide additional stabilization for the paddler while allowing movement of the prosthetic legs and feet as necessary to adapt to varying conditions and to allow for easier maneuvering of the paddle board.

There were many people and organizations involved in completing this project. Michael Fennewald “Gunner”, Rob Womble “Chef” and Michael Widhalm “Woody” (all retired IMG_0859 resizedEOD) learned of the project and provided a generous $800 donation from the EOD Motorcycle Club (EODMC), Panama City chapter. The EODMC’s moto is “EOD Forever” and they pledge to support EOD Warriors and their families, whether that be through fundraising and donations or by standing silent or sometimes not so silent vigils, an awesome powerful presence, at parade routes, memorials, and funeral processions. With EODMC’s donation Ken and Jody were able to reacquire and re-purpose one of Jody’s custom SUP shapes. The board was the right size and shape to provide maximum stability and still allow for maneuverability while providing a good platform for the support stanchion to be mounted. Ken and Jody worked on stanchion designs with an engineer named Kyler Hast of NSWC Panama City. The goal was to build a frame to lean on that would provide an additional point of contact to stabilize the paddler, whose balance would be limited (at least initially) due to prosthetic legs/feet.

The stanchion designs were shared with a friend named Andrew Chime who works for Yulista Aviation, Inc Panama City, FL and whose brother happens to be an EOD IMG_0879 resizedTechnician. Andy introduced Ken to his Program Manager Geoff Haney to talk about the project and subsequently Yulista Aviation, Inc. generously donated $500 to cover materials to build the stanchion. Andy donated his time and expertise to coordinate the efforts and manufacture the stanchion. Andy had lots of help bringing the design to life from Lee Dillingham, Gene Young and Johnny Gabriel (all Yulista). Additionally, materials and welding expertise were donated by Joe Pierce of Miracle Strip Welding and powder coating was done by Dustin Finch and Dale Pierce of Powder Coat of Panama City, FL. The team expresses sincere gratitude for the support from all those involved to bring this project to life.

The board was presented to Rob at the EOD Warrior Foundation Auction on Friday May 6th at the Emerald Coast Convention Center. The weather was almost perfect on Sunday afternoon when Rob was able to try out his new paddle board. Battling a little wind and IMG_9557swell from passing small boats Rob took a few spills, but persevered and by the end of the paddle was able to climb back up on the board and continue paddling on his own. He and Megan returned to the landing exhausted and a little sunburned, but still smiling so it was a successful first paddle together.

Rob and Megan have decided to make the Gulf Coast their home in the near future and are working with the Tunnel to Towers Foundation to make that dream come true with a fully accessible home, which will help Rob reach a whole new level of independence. Hopefully, his new SUP provides some additional freedom and peace.

Ken, Jody, and Crystal are already planning the longboard project for 2017 and are hoping to raise the funding to build and present another SUP to a deserving Warrior next year. This year’s stand-up paddle board project was a success thanks to the donations from EODMC and Yulista as well as the hours of work by the many volunteers who wanted to be involved. Thank you to all who helped out making dreams come true!

[1] The EOD Warrior Foundation (EODWF) serves the EOD community by providing financial assistance and support to active-duty and veteran wounded, injured or ill EOD warriors, families of our wounded and fallen EOD warriors and by maintaining the EOD Memorial. – See more at: