Defusing Danger

Article excerpt

EXPLOSIVE ordnance technicians agree there's no such thing as an expert. It's nearly impossible to know all the various types of bombs, grenades, land mines and projectiles that exist, not only in the U.S. military inventory, but also in those of other nations.

"The senior person at this school probably doesn't know even a tenth of the millions of munitions that exist," said SGM Thomas Curtis, top Army NCO at the joint-service, Navy-run School of Explosive Ordnance Disposal at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.

The school's seven-month basic EOD course teaches soldiers how to keep explosives from destroying life and property. Sound simple? Each year about 40 percent of the basic-course students drop out because of academic pressure.

"You've got to be able to think on your own without a step-by-step guide," said PFC Alexander Gray, a recent graduate who sees a diploma from EOD school as a license just to learn the job. "School is an initiation that ensures we can all speak the same language. The real learning starts when we get to our units."

Learning the Trade

Survival in this critical field requires painstaking attention to detail. It's also contingent upon discerning the precise dangers of unexploded ordnance, knowing when to disarm an explosive and when to blow it up, and knowing what tools to use in the process.

Students are warned not to merely memorize what they learn. Instead, they must think comprehensively and know how to compare the physical features of ordnance they can't identify with information published in trade manuals.

In demolition, students learn to destroy ordnance non-electrically with a fuse, or electrically by attaching a wire and blasting cap that's connected to a remote trigger. While the loud explosions and smoke are always impressive, EOD soldiers say, it's not their leading method of disarmament.

"There's a misconception that we just chuck explosives on top and tear it away. But more often than not, we'll make an explosive safe on the spot because of other safety concerns, then move it someplace where we can eliminate it so it'll never bother anyone again," said instructor SFC Thomas Hewitt.

Rendering ordnance safe is a meticulous, step-by-step process that requires selective attention. One wrong move--like forgetting to use protective equipment or placing remote power tools one-eighth of an inch off the mark--can result in severe injury, death or the destruction of vital equipment.

"Personal safety is more important than anything else," said instructor SFC Tamiko Bogad.

But safety is never a guarantee in EOD.

"Some procedures are just less dangerous than others," Curtis said. "Ordnance is designed to go off. So just walking up on it is extremely dangerous, and there could be hundreds or thousands of devices to deal with, not just one."

Students must pass more than 40 tests at EOD school, many of them hands-on, and often with munitions they haven't seen in training.

"They've got to get used to applying basic principles and comparing information to determine what they're working with," Curtis said. "If soldiers get nervous here, where the ordnance is just plastic or concrete, imagine how they'll be a week after graduation when they're working on real ordnance."

Those who haven't failed a test in the first few months often do so in the 30-day air-ordnance phase, which covers aircraft explosive hazards, guided missiles, bombs and bomb fuses, dispensers and payloads--some of the most sophisticated equipment EOD techs ever work with.

"You can remember 99 percent of the information in air ordnance but forget one percent and fail the test," said recent graduate CPT Jim Wood.

Pilots needing to make an emergency landing with a fully loaded aircraft must first eject ordnance off the plane. EOD techs go after the jettisoned ordnance and render it safe, and also deal with potential explosive hazards remaining on the aircraft. …