Somewhere in southern Afghanistan, an explosive ordnance disposal technician spots a glint in the soft dirt. He moves deliberately, but steadily, as he tries to determine if it’s a harmless piece of trash or a bomb. In the back of his mind, the technician can’t help but wonder if this will be the improvised explosive device that kills him.
Since 2003 similar missions have taken the lives of 20 Air Force EOD technicians, when Airmen began diffusing bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan.
With combat missions winding down, EOD is now able to divert attention to its nine other mission sets: aerospace systems and vehicle conventional munitions, weapons of mass destruction, nuclear inventory, UXOs, operational range clearances, mortuary services, defense support for civil authorities, irregular warfare (where EOD teams serve as combat enablers for general forces or special operations), and VIP support.
As the career field shifts into a post-war posture they’re refocusing on these other skill sets. One of these they used to support the Secret Service when two teams from the 325th Civil Engineer Squadron’s EOD flight at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, worked President Barack Obama’s trip to Orlando, Florida, after the nightclub massacre where 49 people were killed in June. The Secret Service tasked EOD teams to sweep venues for explosives, areas en route to the venues, or on any person or object that could be used to harm the president or VIPs they’re protecting.
“For so many years, we have been going 150 mph,” said Senior Master Sgt. Robert K. Brown, 325th CES EOD superintendent, “so when you slow down to 85 mph, you feel like you’re crawling, even though you’re still going faster than most other people on the highway. We’d been doing that for the 12 years of combat operations, and now I think we feel we’re at a snail’s pace.”
Post-war life at the Tyndall AFB flight, one of 52 active-duty EOD flights Air Force-wide, ranges from responding to flares that wash up on the beach after being dropped by the Navy to mark items in the ocean to the occasional unexploded ordnance. The flight is responsible for assessing, rendering inert or safely destroying everything from small arms to guided missiles, although any EOD flight could be called upon to handle anything explosive in nature up to and including a nuclear incident.
The 325th EOD flight’s primary mission is flightline support for the wing’s four fighter squadrons, but it also provides counter-IED support for several tenant organizations.
By the time EOD Airmen left Afghanistan in 2014, they had completed almost 20,000 missions, responded to over 6,500 IEDs, and received more than 150 Purple Hearts for their actions and service in Iraq and Afghanistan. They also deployed often, with a third of the service’s 1,000 EOD members overseas and another third in pre-deployment training preparing to replace them, Brown said. At times the pace was so heavy that EOD Airmen would often be replaced by the same person who replaced them on their last deployment.
“For some of us old-timers in this particular generation, we’ve had a chance to kind of breathe,” Brown said. “In doing so, that’s given us the opportunity to regroup, restock and prepare for the next iteration of conflict that may or may not be coming. So right now is the best time to share the experiences and prepare the next generation for the hard lessons that we’ve had over these past 12 years.”
The two wars might be over, but EOD remains one of the Air Force’s most dangerous jobs. In addition to the 20 EOD technicians lost in the two wars, about 150 have suffered extensive injuries. It is a continuing evolving because of the constantly changing tactics of the enemy.
“The enemy is always going to try to continually be better than us, so we have to ensure that we never sleep in preparation for any force that we’re going to encounter,” said Chief Master Sgt. Neil C. Jones, the EOD operations and training program manager with the Air Force Civil Engineer Center at Tyndall AFB. “We don’t have the opportunity to make a mistake, so we train relentlessly to never get it wrong.”
During the transition, which has begun gradually in the past couple of years, the focus has been on getting everyone back from deployments and training them in the other nine skill sets to reestablish pre-OIF levels of proficiency. But equally important is the challenge of reducing attrition rates during EOD technical training without lowering the standards, Jones said.
EOD students first attend a 20-day preliminary school at Sheppard AFB, Texas, before they go through the Naval School EOD at Eglin AFB, Florida. An average school day is more than 13 hours, and it takes several years for a student to become a fully functional EOD member and a couple of years longer to be a team leader. About 75 percent of students fail to make it through the course.
Two recent changes to reduce attrition rates are the use of computer tablets for rehabilitation training and the addition of a couple of wounded warrior EOD technicians to help students at the school.
Derrick Victor, a retired technical sergeant who was wounded in his last deployment to Afghanistan when a bomb blast killed one Airman and hurt four others, is one of the new instructors. He’s seen the career field evolve through the wars and is now part of its post-war transition.
“Those two wars obviously changed the way that wars are fought as far as being on the ground and in third-world countries where they have to improvise,” Victor said. “It created a bit of a change from being based on supporting aircraft to things that were improvised. We got very good at that skill set, using robotics and working out all of that kind of stuff.
“Even though those two wars have dwindled down, we know that threat is not going to go away,” he continued. “So, as a whole, the career field is trying to keep that skill set rolling through the generations from those of us for who all we knew was Iraq and Afghanistan to all of these young kids coming fresh out of school, so they don’t have to learn on the fly like we did.”
EOD leadership is also placing a priority on training when Airmen get to their flights after graduation. Because the consequences of mistakes are so severe, the goal is to have those mistakes made in training, Brown said.
“I often refer to it as ‘the good, the bad, the ugly and the stupid,'” he said. “That just refers to what went right, what went wrong, what worked that probably shouldn’t have and what did we do that was just plain dumb, which happens in training. That’s OK as long as we learn lessons from it. But it’s not OK if it’s unsafe. Those are sometimes the hardest parts to learn. We want to make sure that if these guys (make a mistake) in training, they don’t do it when it’s for real. Explosives don’t care about peacetime or wartime.”
Another factor that’s evolving is the way the EOD field trains to recover from both emotional and physical trauma. More emphasis is being placed on instilling resiliency before something happens to an EOD technician in the field, Jones said.
Along with the cultural shift from the war years, the field has also been making major transitions in technology. The robot EOD technicians used in Afghanistan has been replaced by, among others, the Micro Tactical Ground Robot. The world’s lightest EOD robot can be carried by a single Airman, travel at 2 mph, climb stairs and see beyond 1,000 feet. Airmen previously carried 100-pound robots attached to their rucksacks. The new 25-pound robot can be carried on their backs.
“The technology advances that we have out there with the global economy, and more importantly, being able to make things lighter, faster and stronger, have allowed us to develop new tools and techniques and robotic platforms that are much smaller, lighter and leaner than what we had 14 years ago,” Jones said.
Technological progress hasn’t just been in robotics. There has also been a dramatic change in treating traumatic injuries downrange.
“I think one of the biggest things that we’ve seen as far as technology has been in the medical arena. We have changed the way we treat people for trauma,” Jones said. “If we can stop the bleeding downrange and get that Airman alive into a helo and back to a field surgical team, we’re running about a 98 percent success rate of saving their lives. So as our enemy continues to develop with technology to use against us, we will continually use our technology to develop a better way to take care of that threat.”
As much as life changes after years of war, one area that remains constant is the role tragic events play in training new EOD technicians. As sobering as the memories are of losing members of the EOD family, their sacrifice provided important training lessons.
“What our fallen have done is the same as our World War II EOD bomb disposal predecessors – with very brave men going down and disarming German rockets and bombs,” Brown said. “If they made a mistake, we would then know not to take that step, that last step. Unfortunately, a lot of bomb disposal techs died that way, but our fallen have taught us how to be better at this craft; they have never failed.”