'Bomb Squad' uses tools, intelligence to battle GWOT

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Parker Gyokeres
  • 23rd Wing Public Affairs
Air Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal experts are fighting a daily, deadly battle on the front lines of the Global War on Terror using the latest technology and the power of teamwork.

A weapon commonly employed by insurgent forces in Iraq and Afghanistan is the improvised explosive device. The many methods used to create, conceal and control them is matched daily by the constant efforts of highly-trained EOD technicians who discover, disarm and defeat these lethal tools of guerrilla warfare.

It takes more than a year of training to deploy with a bomb squad in Iraq, said Staff Sgt. Carlos Cox, 23rd Civil Engineer Squadron Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician. By this time, the men and women on these teams have repeatedly shown they are able to handle the stress of the job and are responsible enough to perform it under extreme circumstances.

The initial training for an EOD technician is a one-week indoctrination course at Medina Annex in San Antonio, Texas, said Sergeant Cox. The process is grueling and designed to quickly separate those who have an aptitude for the demanding field from those who don't.

"The indoctrination course is physically tough and academically challenging," he said. "The instructors throw everything they can at you to see if you can handle the stress. Only around 30 percent of the class was left when my week was over."

After the indoctrination course, prospective technicians continue their training at the Navy's Explosive Ordnance Disposal School at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. This training can take between eight to 12 months, depending on a student's aptitude and how fast he or she can obtain the needed security clearances, said Sergeant Cox.

The intense course covers everything from biological to nuclear hazards, he said. The wide range of knowledge technicians must absorb reflects the huge variety of devices they may encounter. There may be 1,000 different anti-tank rockets in the world, but if you know the basics of how they work and operate, you should be able to use that knowledge to disarm the device.

One of the most important lessons the school teaches is teamwork, he said. Early and often, the students learn the most valuable asset any technician can have in the field is another EOD tech.

"Teamwork means everything to the EOD career field," said Sergeant Cox. "We have to know the person beside us is committed, capable and willing to accomplish the mission. We have to know that the person next to us is willing to save our lives at a moment's notice, because it is in that person's nature to do so."

When a team does get called to the scene, the tools they have for approaching and surveying an unknown device are some of the most technically advanced devices the military uses, said Capt. Robert Scott, 23rd CES EOD flight commander.

"The tool that is becoming the symbol of today's modern bomb squad is the robot," said Captain Scott. "These high-technology machines have dramatically reduced the risks an EOD technician must face when surveying a hazardous scene."

The size of the robot they choose to employ is often dependent on the location and nature of a threat, said Sergeant Cox.

During stateside responses an EOD team is likely to use a larger, more capable unit they can transport inside a command trailer. Its extremely high-resolution cameras, up to 750-pound weight and high strength are custom-designed for mounting de-arming weaponry or even dragging an incapacitated victim out of harms way.

While deployed downrange on rapid-response patrols, many EOD teams are now using the 50-pound "Packbot," said Sergeant Cox. This small tank-treaded unit that is about the size of a microwave and can be deployed in seconds to survey an IED or weapons cache with its robotic arm and camera system.

"The Packbot is not large or powerful enough to drag a fully loaded combat troop out of danger, but it packs many of the same tricks its larger brothers have," he said. "The robot is light-weight and has pre-programmed operational commands to make it easy to use and employ in areas where size or speed is an issue."

It's this type of quick accessibility that make the Packbot such a valuable tool for an EOD technician to have downrange, said Captain Scott.

"You don't have all day to sit around responding to an IED in Iraq," said Captain Scott. "The Packbot can be set up and on a device well before we begin drawing sniper fire."

If the explosive device calls for a set of human eyes or hands, these techs have the "bomb-suit." This 75-pound full-body protective suit and bulletproof helmet is a cross between a flack-jacket and the worlds bulkiest snowmobile suit. It is designed to shelter the wearer from the worst of an unexpected blast.

"We have a couple of different levels of suit depending on the danger," said Captain Scott. "The heavyweight suit is rated to completely protect a technician from the detonation under certain conditions. The man who designed these suits is so confident in the protection they offer he actually tests them himself."

While an EOD technician has a lot of tools and tricks at their disposal, their methods of disarming and "rendering-safe" a bomb is a closely guarded secret, said Sergeant Cox.

"We are fully prepared to use all of the tools and knowledge at our disposal to keep ourselves safe and get the job done," he added. "Anything more than that would be giving away information our adversaries will use against us.

"Ensuring we're up to date on the latest threats of our adversaries is a constant battle and we are constantly talking and studying to stay current on how we can counter them," he added. "Hardly a day goes by where we don't learn something new and use it to stay ahead of the threat."

Regardless of the methods used, the goals and motivation are always the same, said Tech. Sgt. Hendrik Van de Pol, 23rd CES EOD technician.

"When I'm out on a mission, my primary concern is to keep my team from being injured or killed," said Sergeant Van de Pol. "Nothing else really matters. Every good team leader knows all the fancy technology we have is designed to keep us safe.

"Personally, I do my job because of the team member standing next to me," he added. "If I fail, he gets hurt. My teammates keep me motivated to be my best."

Sergeant Cox agreed, adding EOD technicians want to be the best in most, if not all, things they do.

"This is why we constantly train on various robots and tools to come up with a better, safer and faster ways to accomplish out mission," he added. "As EOD technicians, we have to strive to be the best at what we do, because lives depend on it. We chose this job because we are drawn to the challenge of an ever-changing threat and the instant gratification of making something go 'Boom.'"