Applying the lessons of war learned overseas, a U.S. military
school tries to teach its students to thwart the use of makeshift
bombs at home.
The bomb-disposal technicians huddled with the fire chief and the
Transportation Security Administration supervisor on the tarmac of
Northwest Florida Regional Airport. The chief and the supervisor
told the technicians that luggage screeners thought they had spotted
two bombs in suitcases belonging to passengers on a departing plane.
Operators of a CTX machine, or luggage scanner, spotted the first
in a rollaway bag on a conveyor belt. The bag had been matched to a
passenger. A review of surveillance video from the terminal showed
its owner talking in a familiar way to another man.
That man's bag, also thought to hold a bomb, was "out there" --
the T.S.A. supervisor gestured toward luggage trailers on the
asphalt near a gate.
So began an exercise in the Advanced Improvised Explosive Device
Disposal course, a quietly busy American military school intended to
help thwart a weapon indelibly linked to terrorism and war: the
makeshift bomb, the type of weapon that had been used days before in
the Boston Marathon attack.
This exercise, held on the Florida Panhandle the night before the
police closed in on the marathon suspects in Massachusetts, had been
scheduled since January. But its timing was not lost on its
Tracy Stage, the airport's deputy director, watched the drill and
said the value of the training had been brought home by what
happened in Boston. A weapon of unconventional war had shown itself
once again to be a domestic killer.
The students and instructors, mostly veterans of combat tours in
Afghanistan or Iraq, had seen the bloody effects of bombing
campaigns abroad. They had years of experience disabling improvised
devices, examining blast sites and searching for evidence among
burned wreckage and human remains.
The events in Boston seemed to surprise none of them. Several
said they expected to see more makeshift bombs in the United States,
where, in certain circumstances, particularly in rural areas,
military ordnance disposal technicians could be called to work
beside civilian law enforcement agencies.
"It's not a matter of if," said Capt. Joseph Polanin, the
commanding officer of Naval School Explosive Ordnance Disposal,
which offers this advanced course to seasoned technicians. "It's a
matter of when."
The school Captain Polanin commands trains ordnance disposal
technicians in all four American military services, as well as
foreign military students.
The course, which lasts three weeks and trains about 375 students
a year, is open only to experienced military technicians and
students from federal agencies; it does not admit foreign students,
however, because much of its instruction is classified. The
curriculum sharpens skills that might be used overseas or in the
The latest drill began when Juanita Wright, an operations
supervisor at the airport, called the school to report the discovery
of the bombs and request help. Two teams of students were soon en
route to the terminal.
On the tarmac, the teams set up a pair of remote-controlled
robots, which soon were rolling on treads toward the suspicious
That the last night of the course's exercises was held at a
public airport, served by prominent commercial airlines, including
Delta, United and US Airways, was by design.
The makeshift bomb, disposal technicians know, is not merely a
weapon of trench lines or remote trails, or used solely against
military convoys and patrols. It has become the weapon of choice in
terrorist attacks across a spectrum of civilian settings: in markets
and places of worship, in parking lots and stadiums, in schools or,
as in Boston, on crowded urban streets.
The course also conducts its exercises at recognizable public
sites -- like a bank, a police station, a rail yard, a goat-and-
poultry farm, a day care center, a motel, an abortion clinic and