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A disarming line of work for father-and-son team

Joe and Mike Trocino identify and neutralize old explosives.

October 20, 2008|Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writer

In a nondescript Woodland Hills office overlooking Neiman Marcus, a father-son team have found their calling dealing with explosives. Safely identifying and disarming them, that is. Along the way, their foundation has been credited with saving the lives and limbs of countless people around the world.

As his career as a chemical engineer wound down in the mid-1990s, Joe Trocino, 84, knew he didn't want "to sit in a rocking chair and watch the cars go by." Instead, he has spent his retirement dreaming up ways to ensure that children in Southeast Asia don't lose a hand to a 3-inch mine.

Trocino -- who as a young man worked on the Manhattan Project and then went on to sell drag-racing fuel, glue solvents and explosives strong enough to demolish oil platforms -- now makes simple and affordable devices to rid war-torn countries of land mines.

Along with his son Mike, Trocino created the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation, which has trained government workers and military personnel how to safely destroy old munitions. Foundation employees teach villagers in foreign countries how to identify old land mines and bombs. They have also developed a program in Vietnam to pay for scrap metal derived from old weaponry.

Known among government agencies and humanitarian groups for its MacGyver-like devices that help more easily find and destroy land mines and other weapons, the foundation has a low profile on its home turf.

"The United States doesn't have a land mine problem," said Mike Trocino, 50, a Pepperdine MBA who has worked with his father for a quarter of a century. "We're solving a problem that people don't have direct experience with."

The oldest son of Italian immigrants, the elder Trocino decided a decade ago to apply his chemical engineering skills to destroy old weaponry after reading a newspaper story about a global crisis. Tens of millions of mines hidden in fields, roads and schoolyards in 80 countries can cost up to $1,000 each to remove. The abandoned weapons kill and maim thousands each year and hinder economic expansion in largely agrarian countries by preventing farmers from using their land.

Using government grants and private donations, the foundation and its staff of 20 have developed several systems to destroy old weapons in countries in Southeast Asia and Central America.

"One of our main objectives is to come up with devices that are effective and affordable and robust in the field," Joe Trocino said. "When you're in the middle of Cambodia or Vietnam and your equipment breaks down, you can't go to the local repair shop."

According to documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service, the foundation brought in $953,503 in government grants and $116,968 in public support in 2006.

The foundation benefited from skills Joe Trocino learned as a member of a team that refined implosion methods for the nuclear bomb as part of the Manhattan Project. When he left the military in the late 1940s, Trocino worked as a consultant for various companies, developing formulations for drag-racing fuel as well as solvents for super glue and liquid explosives for underwater demolition.

Explosives experts hired by the foundation have invented simple systems to destroy old munitions, including one that recycles them. Golden West's experts use a band saw to slice large bombs in half in seconds. They then remove the cake-like explosives and shape them into charges that are distributed to nonprofit groups, which use them to destroy land mines.

U.S. agencies credit the process with helping them quickly rid some of the most heavily mined places on the planet of deadly explosives.

"Of course it has saved lives," said Sean Burke, program manager for the Humanitarian Demining Research and Development Program at the Department of Defense, which provided funding to develop the system in Cambodia. "Of the 80,000 charges that we've provided, each one of those has destroyed a mine or a bomb." Nonprofit groups that specialize in locating and destroying land mines say these charges eliminate the need to import explosives from other countries -- a time-consuming, expensive and dangerous enterprise.

"We received higher quality explosives for free, rather than spend donor grant funding on lower quality explosives," said Andrew Lyons, vice president of the HALO Trust USA, a charity devoted to destroying old munitions.

After several years of work in Cambodia's "killing fields," Golden West estimates its recycling system has saved local officials $1 million and recycled 43,663 pounds of metal from old munitions.

The Woodland Hills foundation is also working in Central America, where nonprofits say liquid explosives -- similar to those Joe Trocino used commercially on oil platforms -- have been instrumental in helping destroy ammunition depots. The system was used to remove 2 million pounds of munitions that threatened residents in northern and central Nicaragua since the 1980s.

"Without them, I don't think we could have done that project," said Carl Case, director of the Office of Humanitarian Mine Action at the Organization of American States, which is seeking funding to use the foundation's expertise in Guatemala. "It would have been much more costly, and we would have had a much more difficult time getting it done."


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