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U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Tom Blandino has been named the Air Force’s non-commissioned officer of the year for the 9th Air Force.
But the West Brunswick graduate now stationed at Seymour Johnson Air Force base in Goldsboro says he’s more proud of his troop than of his recent accolades.
Blandino’s award was announced March 8 in Destin, Fla., which he described as a door-opening experience.
The award, he said, is for “outstanding and distinguished combat-related service.”
Blandino, along will his K-9 Veki, served two tours in Iraq searching for roadside bombs and other explosives.
Blandino’s first tour was for six months, and his second tour was for eight months. Blandino and other K-9 handlers were deployed to “sweep out” the bombs or other explosive devices for U.S. troops to safely navigate the Iraqi terrain.
The most dangerous bomb he and Veki would seek out were explosive form projectiles (EFP), which can penetrate armored tanks and trucks, Blandino said.
During his two tours in Iraq, Blandino knew no Americans who died in firefights. He said all American casualties he knew of were from IEDs, EFPs and other roadside explosives.
“I want to get these guys home to their kids, their wives and their families,” he said of the troops he and other dog teams helped support.
The duo typically spent three or four days at a time searching out explosive devices. Once Veki detected an explosive, he signaled Blandino and the explosive was destroyed.
For Veki, seeking out explosives was a game, which was rewarded with praise and toys. But Blandino and Veki served as a critical resource protecting troops and saving lives.
Though Veki has since died, Blandino is still interested in working as a K-9 handler or a K-9 trainer, he said.
On May 10, he is slated to begin a one-year stint in Korea, but then hopes to return to the states to be closer to his own family.
Blandino is married to his high school sweetheart, Chanell. The couple has three children: Rachael, 6, Aiden, 4, and Luca, 1. While they might be too young to understand what he does, Blandino says his kids know “Daddy’s fighting bad guys.”
Awards or not, Blandino looks forward to his next deployment.
“It’s a good job. I like everything we do. We’re there helping people.”