Air Force Bomb Disposal Expert Sought Challenges

Senior Airman Elizabeth Loncki, a member of the Air Force's explosive-ordnance disposal team, died at 23 while attempting to dismantle a bomb — along with two other members of her team — in Iraq. Her family remembers her as someone who looked for ways to test herself.

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Senior Airman Elizabeth Loncki died near Baghdad earlier this month. She was 23. She was attempting to dismantle a bomb with two other members of her team when it exploded. NPR's Jack Zahora went to her memorial service at Padua Academy in Wilmington, Delaware, Loncki's alma mater.

JACK ZAHORA: In the Catholic high school's auditorium, hundreds of people came to celebrate Mass as a way to remember Elizabeth Loncki.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Shepherd me, oh Lord, behind my heart, behind my fears, from death in your love.

ZAHORA: Father Mark Hushing(ph) presided over the service. He emphasized Loncki's devotion to her faith.

Fr. MARK HUSHING (Padua Academy, Wilmington, Delaware): She paraphrased the words of Jesus Christ when she said, if I could save only one life, it would be worth it. She lived, not only embraced Jesus' message - she lived it.

ZAHORA: Loncki's commander says she probably saved thousands of lives. She was a member of the explosive ordinance disposal team. Every day, it was Loncki's job to search for bombs that were used against U.S. and Iraqi forces.

At the memorial service, Jessica Clank(ph) and Leah Coin(ph) recited a poem about their friend. They remembered her as someone who like fashion and cosmetics and at the same time wanted to emulate a professional wrestler.

Ms. JESSICA CLANK and LEAH COIN (Elizabeth Loncki's friends): You could usually find her at the gym, showing all the guys her stuff. She wanted to be like China Doll - you know, body builder buff. And oh, how she loved her perfumes. Multiple squirts were best. Often you would spot her in her blue sweater or puffiest blue vest.

ZAHORA: When Loncki was younger, she got a lot of attention from the boys in her hometown of Newcastle. She was also known for being able to outdo most of them in push-ups.

But at school, her former English teacher Elizabeth Slater remembers that Loncki made a point not to stick out, that she was more interested in being part of a group.

Ms. ELIZABETH SLATER (Elizabeth Loncki's former English teacher): You know, one definition of humility is knowing your place and taking it. Liz Loncki knew her place and she took it. And she took it with a lot of character and a lot of poise.

ZAHORA: Slater says it was that quality that made Loncki suited for the military.

As Stephen Loncki sits down with his wife to talk about his daughter, his watch goes off. He makes no attempt to shut it off.

Mr. STEPHEN LONCKI (Elizabeth Loncki's Father): This is actually her watch that she was wearing in Iraq that her boyfriend gave her before she left. She was wearing this when she died. Actually, it just went off to wake her up. It's still on Iraqi time. And she gets up at 5:30 in the morning. She did.

ZAHORA: He says his daughter first went to Arizona State University to study business. But then after a year, she realized a desk job wasn't in her future.

Mr. LONCKI: She wanted to do something good, and she told me when she picked the Air Force, I said, what are you going to do there? She said I'm going to be on the EOD, the bomb squad. And I asked her, why? And she goes, because it's the highest challenge that you can have in the Air Force, and I think I'm up to it.

ZAHORA: Elizabeth Loncki only had two more weeks before finishing her first tour of duty. She had planned to marry her boyfriend and move to Utah, where they had already bought a house. Jack Zahora, NPR News.

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