In war-torn Iraq, roadside bombs and other "improvised explosive devices" are the most destructive weapons facing U.S. troops. That makes bomb disposal one of the military's most dangerous duties.
Marine Staff Sgt. Dwayne E. Williams was among the best at the job, winning the Bronze Star for successfully dismantling hundreds of devices during three tours in Iraq - often under enemy fire and once in the dark.
But yesterday, the Department of Defense reported the 28-year-old Baltimore native died Thursday "while conducting combat operations in Al Anbar province," home to the insurgent stronghold city of Ramadi.
"He was disconnecting a bomb and it went off. He and another guy got killed," said a cousin, Mildred Alston of Warrenton, N.C., where Sergeant Williams' family reunion was held just last weekend.
Sergeant Williams' uncle, Robert Williams, said his nephew told him in a phone conversation before the reunion that he was set to return to the United States this month. The sergeant apparently had a tough couple of weeks before his death, suffering three concussions from explosive devices. One recent explosion blew his vehicle into the air, nearly killing him and his three team members, according to a Marine Web site article.
"He was dedicated to his job," said Robert Williams, a former Northeast Baltimore resident who now lives in Henderson, N.C., and helped raise his nephew. "He was very gifted."
A Vietnam veteran, Robert Williams said his family has a tradition of military service going back to World War I. His two sons are also Marines, and one was stationed with Sergeant Williams in Okinawa before they were sent to Iraq earlier this year.
"Dwayne is the first one in our family who was killed in all the wars we had them in, from World War I until now," the uncle said.
Sergeant Williams's wife, LaStar, and 4-year-old son, Malachi, were staying with relatives in North Carolina, but his mother and grandmother live in Baltimore. Growing up, he lived at his grandmother's Edmondson Village home and his uncle's Northeast Baltimore house. He graduated from Fairmont-Harford High School 10 years ago, his uncle said.
Ms. Alston said family members were talking about Sergeant Williams at their reunion after a relative opened a laptop computer and connected to their family Web site. The site contains photographs and writings about his Iraqi tours and about a heritage that dates to former slaves.
One entry, titled "hero's e-mail," reproduced an e-mail and photographs sent by Sergeant Williams on May 30 last year that described how he detonated one improvised explosive device only to discover a second nearby.
"I found another device set as a trap for us. I yelled `IED' so others could run," he wrote. The letter explains that he dove toward the item and disabled it by hand while the others took cover.
"All this happen so fast within seconds before the bomber could initiate his device from afar," he wrote. "Four Marines including myself were within the blast radius of this item. The Lord is good. My unit may be submitting me for a Bronze Star with Combat V for Valor."
He clearly maintained a sense of humor and humility about heroic actions that would help him win the Bronze Star.
"Let's just say I had to change my underwear after that yet again," he wrote. This month, the Marine Corps Web site published a 900-word article highlighting the work of Sergeant Williams and the four-member bomb squad he led.
"With an uncanny calm, these four men willingly put their lives on the line every day, going face to face with the enemy's preferred weapon," the Aug. 3 article stated. "The bomb experts represent a chosen few in Iraq whose job is to handle the very thing most service members are trying to avoid."
The article stated that Sergeant Williams, a Marine for nine years, had responded to more than 250 possible IEDs since he arrived in the "deadly corridor between Fallujah and Ramadi" in April.
They jokingly called themselves Team Rogaine because Sergeant Williams said he suffered from random hair loss after each of his three deployments to Iraq.
"They say it's from the stress," he was quoted as saying.
The article described him as "calm, quiet and laid back." His uncle agreed but said his nephew had a "daredevil" streak that initially led him to his job disposing of bombs.
Since June, Sergeant Williams and his team of explosive ordnance disposal technicians based at Camp Taqaddum in central Iraq had gone on more than 100 missions. He was so skilled at bomb detection that his team was picked in January 2005 to support the Secret Service in checking for explosives during President Bush's inauguration, according to his Bronze Star application and family members.
Sergeant Williams helped sweep buildings throughout all of the routes that Bush traveled that day and night, working in temperatures as low as 15 degrees and in 6 inches of snow.