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Retired EOD technician speaks to Mighty Ninety

F.E. WARREN AIR FORCE BASE, Wyo. --

F. E. Warren Air Force Base is no stranger to distinguished visitors, but one recent visitor left a lasting impression on many who heard him speak. Senior Master Sgt. Paul Horton (Ret.), an Air Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal veteran of 21 years, spoke at several venues Feb. 18 to 19 across the base. He deployed numerous times in support of Operations Southern Watch, Northern Watch, Allied Force, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom and he was medically discharged in 2015 for injuries sustained in combat.

 

Horton opened his visit at Airman Leadership School, where he spoke to more than 30 Airmen about his experiences in the Air Force as an EOD technician. When he joined in 1994, he said, he was an angry young man from a poor and broken home. He joined EOD when he enlisted, an opportunity he saw as a chance to take care of people. Initially plagued with a bad attitude and anger issues, he eventually found mentorship in the form of Walter Moss, another EOD technician. Moss would guide the younger technician to better focus his emotional issues and challenge him to be a better person for his team and his community. Following Moss’ lead, he rededicated himself to why he had joined the Air Force in the first place.

 

Horton related a story of an attack in October 2005 where his convoy drove through into an ambush. After an improvised explosive device detonated under his vehicle, he thought he had died and lost his team. His first thought was that he hadn’t done more with the time he had. “In that moment, I really wished that I had done more with my life,” he said.

 

He regained his composure and started working to defuse IEDs, not realizing that his eardrums had burst, he’d fractured his back and he was being fired at from three different directions. He made it out along with his team, but he went through extensive recuperation before he could return to the field.

 

He related more experiences, both inspiring and heartbreaking, including one where he and his team saved 400 people’s lives at a school. There, they defused three IEDs and evacuated the students and teachers before insurgents detonated a fourth. While deployed, he would get injured again and again, and continue to take on roles in the field, only to be told he didn’t have to – that he had “paid his dues.”

 

Turning to the young crowd of Airmen, he said “how can you have paid your dues, when you haven’t yet lived up to your potential?”

 

His last mission came four years after his friend and mentor, Walter Moss, had been killed in combat. He was on a deployment in September 2010, and he took an assignment with the British High Reaction Force unit, detecting and defusing IEDs. While on a patrol, working on instinct after insurgents had changed tactics and materiel to thwart detection, Horton stepped onto an explosive. It would be that blast that ended his career in the military – and his sense of purpose from being in it.

 

Demoralized and feeling aimless, Horton said, he attended a competition of wounded military members and witnessed something awe-inspiring. A Marine, blind, with one arm and no legs, competing in a swim race. Not only did he complete the race, but he cut 47 seconds off his previous best time. The Marine, with his one arm, brought himself out of the water and called out, “Marines!”

 

In that moment, Horton realized, or maybe remembered, his purpose. It wasn't about the mission, he said. It was getting people home. After leaving, he had spent too much time focusing on what he had lost that he’d lost sight of what he still had – and what he could still give. “It’s not about what you lose,” Horton said. “It’s about what you have left to give that matters.”

 

Horton addressed other members of 90th Missile Wing, including to the EOD flight at F.E. Warren and at the Annual Awards Ceremony Feb. 18. Many who were present to hear Horton speak seemed to sit at the edge of their seats, hanging on the words and soaking in the story, which usually culminated in standing ovation. One touched by the story was 90th Missile Wing Commander Col. Stephen Kravitsky. Following Horton’s talk at the award ceremony, he thanked him for being there.

 

“I don’t think there’s a single person in this room that you didn’t touch,” said Kravitsky. “You made every person in this room a better person this evening.”

 

The road to the present, where Horton is comfortable telling his story, has been a long one, said Chief Master 90th Maintenance Support Group Chief Enlisted Manager Sgt. Chris Pollock, who has known Horton since 2009. But, he said, these stories underlined a major point to all Airmen, particularly those at ALS. 

 

“He showed them that leadership is not flawless and it’s not gained from a book,” said Pollock. “It’s hard work, it’s commitment and it’s passion and it’s in the worst situations that we gain the most learning.”