Mark Keeley took great pride in his role as a member of a bomb disposal squad protecting the public from terrorist and criminal bombs.
n more than half of his 20 years of service he was a specialist with EOD – Explosive Ordnance Disposal – a small elite with one of the most dangerous jobs in the Irish Army.
It was a rewarding role that he loved – until he was forced to quit because he couldn’t support his young family with the meager wages he was getting for it.
The 42-year-old, who is now being paid much more for his skills in the private sector, vividly recalls the landmark moment in 2019 when he finally realized he had no choice but to leave the Defense Forces – he held a live bomb that could have ripped him to pieces.
In return for routinely risking his life, he says the state paid him less than supermarket staff and was forced to demand a family income supplement to support his wife and two young daughters.
“The moment I realized I’d had enough was when I was handed an old live Mills hand grenade that had been found on a construction site in North Dublin and we were called in to secure it.” recalled Mr. Keeley. “My officer instructed me to place the device in the bomb box, which is designed to contain a small explosion like that of a pipe bomb.
“Though I had done this many times before, it dawned on me how close I had come to possible serious injury or even death.
“These devices may be old, but they are just as deadly today as they were 100 years ago.
“It was at that moment that I realized I wasn’t being paid enough to take risks like this – supermarket shelf packers make more than me and my buddies.
“But most depressing was that as a proud soldier serving the state and performing an important role in keeping the public safe, I was forced to apply for a Family Income Allowance to support my wife and two daughters, who were four at the time and were five years old.
“God, I often think back to all the things I’ve done, taking risks with dangerous explosive devices that were deemed necessary, and being home with two young children who could have lost their father – and for what? ‘ The ex-soldier sighed.
“But I would still be in the Defense Forces, like most who have left in recent years, if we had been treated with a little respect by the government and paid a decent wage.”
Mr. Keeley’s story reflects the experiences of thousands of soldiers, sailors and aircrew who have reluctantly left the Defense Forces in recent years, feeling they have been betrayed by the state they served.
The exodus from the three services has reached a critical juncture, as vigorous recruitment campaigns over the past six years have failed to keep up with filling vacancies that have left the Defense Forces at least 1,000 below its established 9,500 strength.
Earlier this year, the Commission on the Defense Forces reported that the organization is barely operational due to the ongoing brain drain at a time when global tensions have risen dramatically in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Last month, Secretary of Defense Simon Coveney announced a significant increase in defense spending and plans to add “at least 3,000” additional troops to the Defense Forces.
But the former bomb disposal expert dismissed the government’s efforts as “doomed to fail.”
He added: “People like the EOD and other Defense Forces specialties have the only individuals who are trained and prepared to take on dangerous duties, as no one else in the state can.
“But none of that is reflected in our pay and conditions, which is why people are leaving the armed forces in droves. The disdain that successive governments held for the armed forces was felt in all ranks.
“We were treated as a ceremonial showpiece for visiting foreign dignitaries.
“We are the poorest relatives in the entire public sector because we never answer or refuse to do our duty; We have no right to strike and are not covered by the Working Time Directive.
“The government and Department of Defense are viewed as the enemy by all but the highest ranks in the Defense Forces.
“Simon Coveney and the government have ignored the issue of pay and salary controls and as a result their Defense Forces expansion plans are already doomed.
“What’s the use of buying the best equipment if you don’t have someone to operate it?”
Mr Keeley described the exodus of discouraged high-skilled workers as a “horrific waste of public resources”.
He’s now putting the expensive skills he learned in the army to work in a much better-paying job at Intel, where he’s employed as a maintenance technician.
Originally from Tullamore, Co. Offaly, Mr. Keeley enlisted in the Army in 1998 and retired in November 2019 after serving as the No. 2 on an EOD team for more than 10 years.
During his service, he completed four United Nations overseas assignments – two to Lebanon and two to Liberia.
He joined the Ordnance School at Curragh Camp where he trained for five years to become a gunsmith and craftsman responsible for the maintenance and safety of all guns and ammunition used by the military.
“If you add everything up, including modules at universities outside of the country, it cost me at least 200,000 euros in tax money to train me for my role,” he explains.
After a further 12 weeks of training, Mr Keeley joined a three-man bomb squad as number 2 – number one is the officer who actually defuses the equipment and the third drives the unit’s special vehicle.
“Wearing the EOD Flash insignia has been the proudest thing of my military career and, like wearing the Army Ranger insignia, it marks you as a member of an elite group.
“As No. 2, I was the officer’s only backup and a second set of eyes and ears.
“It is a life and death situation where there is no room for the slightest mistake.
“In such a small unit, a lot of trust and teamwork is required and there is no room for rank formalities – we speak to each other on a first-name basis.
“Our training falls under the Official Secrets Act because it is a matter
national security because the training we have could be used to teach terrorists or criminals.
“It’s a very big responsibility that I will respect for the rest of my life.”
The night before he left, he had “tears” in his eyes as he cut the EOD flash from his dress uniform.
He decided to send a message to Mark Mellett, then Defense Forces chief of staff, via LinkedIn.
“The army was a calling in life and I didn’t want to go.
“I begged the boss to do something to rectify the situation. He replied that it was sad that I was leaving under such circumstances and wished me the best of luck.”
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/i-was-handling-live-bombs-but-shelf-packers-were-paid-more-than-me-so-i-quit-41911869.html “I handled live bombs, but shelf packers got paid better than me – so I quit”