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The Ultimate Bomb Squad
The helmet hangs like a cinder block; its cloudy visor frames the desert in front of me into an ugly oval. I’m wearing a 70-pound EOD 9 bomb suit and helmet, which feels more like a gorilla suit with beer goggles. The air trapped in my helmet is stale and thin, and I wonder what’ll happen if I pass out.
I’m in that brown section of middle California consisting of hard rock hills and gravel that stretches for miles. It’s 90 degrees, and the batteries running the suit’s air-conditioning system ran out of juice earlier in the day. At least that’s what they tell me. The Soldiers pushing me onward are here for their Annual Training with the California Army National Guard’s 217th Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Company. More than anything, they want me to understand what it’s like to wear a bomb suit—a mandatory element of what they do.
They say the only way to “get” the suit is to climb inside. They’re right. What I thought would be a simple “try it on and let’s see how clumsy you are” moment quickly turns into a run-through of one of their basic EOD training lanes complete with push-ups and picking up dimes out of the sand, simple tasks made stupidly difficult when you’re wrapped in inches of foam, plastic and Kevlar. A 100-pound Humvee tire is at my feet, and I’m two revolutions away from flipping it to the halfway point. It’s a strenuous exercise meant to test Soldiers’ strength and endurance. Drenched in sweat and with a new fear of enclosed spaces, I’m starting to get the picture of what the suit is really like. And now I want out.
The Soldiers of the 217th don’t get that choice. They can’t stop. If they do, bombs go off and people die. There are a lot of ways to describe the men and women who practice the art of EOD; movies like The Hurt Locker have done a lot to introduce the image of the exclusive bomb squads that are in the Guard and Active Army: The Soldiers are confident, crazy mavericks. But two days on the ground and 10 minutes in the suit create a fuller, more complex picture. EOD requires impossible determination in the face of overwhelming emotional and physical stress.
Annual Training with the 217th under the command of Captain Frank Pangelinan is a portal into this highwire world. The unit is recently home from a deployment to Kosovo where it eliminated unexploded ordnance (UXO) left over from the war with Serbia. Its mission combined all the reasons EOD units exist: dense civilian populations, unknown munitions, unknown ages, unknown volatility and unknown dangers.
Now back home, these Soldiers train for similar threats: improvised explosive devices (IEDs), leftover munitions forgotten in past conflicts, suspicious wires disappearing in the sand beside a road. They face a never-ending evolution of threats. As First Lieutenant Michael Hodge tells me ominously: “You have your fuel, and you have your oxidizer, and then you can make an explosive from nearly anything.” Ever-evolving terrorism keeps the members of the 217th in a constant state of alert. No bomb threat or leftover munitions call is ever the same. You can’t control or predict what’s coming next. You can only train for the unexpected. And that’s just what the 217th does.
INTO THE UNKNOWN
It’s 0900 when the scenario begins. The call comes in that a young boy is sitting in a town hall holding an IED. All he was told by the men who forced him to hold the IED is that if he moves, he’ll die. The call comes from the boy’s father, frantic, slim on details, connected to coherence by a thread.
This is training, so the father-and-son duo are played by EOD techs acting the part. The IED is a nondescript metal box; its insides are wired to fake C-4 with hidden trigger points that the actor-son must keep depressed under his palms. If he doesn’t, a metallic buzzer will go off, indicating mission failure. Of course, none of the Soldiers on the arriving EOD team knows this. All they get is a dark room, a yelling father, a vague story and a few minutes to make a decision.
Staff Sergeant Harold Lee Adams is a tall, muscular, former Active Duty Ranger who is now shutting down bombs with the 217th. His team parks outside the improvised town hall, and he calmly walks to the back of the Humvee as the actor-father yells at him to enter the building and free his actor-son. The yelling is intermittent, but you can only imagine the levels of hell raised by a real-life father in a similar situation. Adams reassures the father while readying his gear to enter the building.
This could be any mission anywhere. And this is about the standard amount of information EOD techs can expect before entering the unknown. The threat may or may not be real, may or may not be highly lethal, may or may not be a decoy to draw the techs into a trap. Every device, every environment, every interaction with an angry local or a scared relative is new, different and strange, and it’s rare that any two EOD operators will make the exact same choices. Most missions will have less information than Soldiers need, and all have the potential of putting the Soldiers and others at risk.
“We’re problem solvers,” Adams says. “[First], we get an [EOD nine-line UXO report]; it could be an ordnance, an IED or any explosive hazard. It’s a problem you have to solve. However you can make the area explosive-free, you just have to solve the problem by any means necessary.”
Given the strategic importance of the town hall and the crowded surrounding area, this particular scenario is rated as a Category A incident. These scenarios focus on a grave and immediate threat and therefore require immediate action, regardless of personal risk. In the EOD world, time is a commodity always in short supply, but most events dictate a great deal of patience. With the prevalence of decoys and double-crosses, and the lack of adequate intel, techs are trained to proceed slowly. The Category A scenario changes this: The Soldiers must get face to face with the device and eliminate the threat.
This is EOD at its most fundamental: brains versus bombs. The bomb disposal robots and bomb suits stay on the Humvee. Adams enters the container complex representing the town hall, protected only by body armor and a badge on his chest representing a year’s worth of training.
In the EOD community, this badge is known as the “Crab.” It recognizes the most specialized bomb technicians, who are trained to deal with the construction, deployment, disarmament and disposal of high-explosive munitions, as well as other types of ordnance, such as nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, IEDs, and improvised nuclear devices (INDs). Eleven states in the Guard have EOD units. Where a Civil Support Team is trained to handle the aftermath that occurs when these devices detonate, the EOD Crab is the training needed to make sure that aftermath never happens.
EARNING THE CRAB
It takes 11 months and has a discouragingly low pass rate, but EOD school is the crucible where the EOD brain is built. The media focus on the exciting optics of bomb robots and suits, but for all the coverage, that’s only a small part of the coursework. EOD training, as you start to realize in the field, is intensely academic. Given that you may be defusing devices as radically different as fertilizer bombs and nuclear warheads, training is about pushing as much information into Soldiers’ brains as quickly as they can absorb it.
Army EOD training begins with two months at Fort Lee, VA, but the main thrust is the nine months at the Naval School EOD at Eglin Air Force Base, FL. Specialist Manuel Ruiz is a young tech with an easy smile that seems out of place in this world of stress, and he relates a common story about the pace of training. “You can get 40 pages of information one day, and the very next day you have to spit it out and make sure it’s right,” he says. “If you don’t pass the test, you’re out.” It’s math, physics, chemistry, electrical engineering and advanced circuitry all united in a testing field that begins with the premise that each mistake is catastrophic.
But more than anything else, it’s still stress, pure and simple. Soldiers who can hold up to 11 months of waking up early to study and staying late to practice, of being tested on something they just learned yesterday in an environment that does not tolerate slip-ups, will probably do well in the field with the real thing. It boils down to this: Stress is the great divider, day in and day out, and if you can’t conquer the demon in the classroom, you won’t conquer it on the battlefield. Again, one mistake is one too many.
The badge, whose nickname stems from the laurels and lightning bolts that resemble crab legs encircling a bomb, holds the distinction as the only occupational badge awarded to all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. This level of unity in training—Army units training on an Air Force base with Navy teachers—only serves to strengthen the unique camaraderie that bonds EOD techs together across the different services. “You know if you see a Marine, an Airman or a Sailor and they have the EOD badge, you know that it’s someone you can trust to do what’s right and get you home safe,” Adams says.
Earning the badge is a defining moment, but it’s not the end. “You’re always learning,” Ruiz says. “Even after you get that Crab on your chest, you have to keep on going.”
DEALING WITH MURPHY
Back in the container complex, Adams fiddles with the X-ray machine, but the rattle he heard when he lifted it onto its stand does not bode well. He had found the actor-son holding the IED on his lap in the dark basement room of the improvised town hall. The actor-son had no details to provide, but his death grip on the box seemed to indicate that there might be pressure triggers built into the box’s sides.
Adams needs a look inside, and every EOD truck has an X-ray machine to provide this insight. Ruiz is crouched behind a wall manning the computer and has just attempted to fire the X-ray for the fifth time. For the fifth time, he’s gotten a blank screen. The X-ray machine is broken.
To hear techs talk, you’d be convinced there is an extra man on every team. You’d also be convinced he’s a real SOB. The eponymous namesake of Murphy’s law is invoked casually, but he inevitably appears on every mission. If Murphy has shown up, anything that can go wrong already has.
Which brings us to the character of EOD techs. The potential for technological failure—bots breaking down, X-ray machines flashing blank screens—is not a question of if, but when. Machines will malfunction, complications will arise, plans will crumble, a hundred annoying difficulties will pester. Murphy happens. You can’t get mad when he shows up; you just find a new way to solve the problem.
If there is a rationale behind the perception of EOD techs being crazy, it isn’t just because they often walk up to high explosives. It’s more likely because of the requisite calmness and steadiness with which they endure adversity. It’s almost unsettling. Adams needs to see inside this IED. He needs an X-ray. Otherwise, he’s nearly blind. But the machine won’t work, and getting mad won’t fix it. So he finds another way.
With millions of dollars of equipment on the truck, Adams fishes two pieces of plastic out of his pocket: his Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) ID and a library card. With painstaking patience, he slowly slides one card between the actor-son’s palms and the metal box, finding the depressed pressure trigger he thinks is preventing the explosive from detonating. The actor-son removes his hand, no buzzer sounds, everyone is still alive. Taping the VA card in place against the side of the box, Adams repeats the process with the second hand, winding the box and his library card firmly with more duct tape.
The box is now just a box, temporarily inert but still dangerous. The actor-son heads for protection, leaving the IED on his vacated metal folding chair. Adams brings in Ruiz to game-plan a water shot—basically a shotgun shell loaded with water—that will force water into the device, disrupting the electronics without compressing the explosive material inside.
That’s when the duct tape starts to come off. The buzzer rings, indicating detonation. The simulated IED explodes with Adams and Ruiz mere feet away. Mission failure.
This is the brutal reality of EOD, where life and death may depend on the stickiness of tape. Or a shift in weight. Or a flashlight falling on a light sensor wired to detonate. Or a million other tiny things that could happen on even the most standard mission, if there is such a thing.
What Adams does next, though, is what really sets EOD apart. He does not hang his head in defeat or curse the tape. He doesn’t even seem angry. He pushes on. The scenario could have been considered a bust, but he continues. He silences the buzzer, sets up the water shot, backs off to a safe distance and explodes water into the IED, disrupting the electronics and blowing up his VA card in the process.
And this is what I learned time and again with the 217th. EOD is not the world of Hollywood, of kicking in doors, fumbling with wires and pliers as a countdown clock ticks to zero. This is not even the world of bots and bomb suits, although I saw my fair share of both. EOD is endurance. It is the long walk of calm nerves, controlled breathing and enduring the heat and heaviness of the suit longer than your body says you can, all the while problem-solving with everything at your disposal.
THE EOD TECH’S BEST FRIEND
To state the obvious, distance from an explosive is one of the biggest factors dictating survivability when a device detonates. Every foot farther away from ground zero decreases an explosive’s impact exponentially. EOD robots (commonly referred to as “bots”) are the tools of choice for increasing this distance.
There are two common bots employed by EOD units, and although they are vastly different, they also share some characteristics. To be functional in battle, they must be light enough for transportation by one or two Soldiers, but resilient enough to withstand extreme climates, occasional potshots and rough handling. The last thing you want is a bot that dies midmission because a computer got dusty or a wire wiggled loose. Bots must be maneuverable in terrain as varied as desert roads and urban streets.
Most bots are outfitted with multiple cameras and sensors, lights, and handlike tools that can manipulate doorknobs, drag ordnance out of public areas and disrupt IEDs. Here are the other ways two EOD bots stack up to the competition.
Average base weight: 85 lbs.
Maximum speed: 4 mph
Terrain: soft sand, mud, snow, heavy brush
Range: 1 mile line of sight
Amphibious depth: 100 ft.
Incline functionality: grades up to 45 degrees
Other capabilities: climbs stairs and fits in compact car trunk
iRobot 510 PackBot
Average base weight: 24 lbs.
Maximum speed: 5.8 mph
Terrain: rock, mud, snow, rubble, narrow passages
Range: 0.5 miles line of sight
Amphibious depth: 3 ft.
Incline functionality: grades up to 60 degrees
Other capabilities: fits in backpack
DRESSED FOR SURVIVAL
The EOD 9 bomb suit is made to balance two objectives that are at odds with each other: protection and mobility. If you’re trying to survive a close-range impact from high explosives, you wouldn’t design an apparatus with a window. If you’re trying to defuse a bomb, you need to be able to actually walk up to it. The sophisticated design of the standard bomb suit accomplishes both objectives. Overlapping layers of Kevlar, foam and plastic provide protection while enabling an EOD tech to maneuver and perform routine tasks.
The EOD 9 bomb suit protects from three main dangers:
When explosive devices detonate, there can obviously be a great deal of solid matter mobilized as a result. Often, this is intentional shrapnel designed into the device by the bomb-maker to induce maximum damage. This can also be fragmentation of the bomb mechanism or materials near the device’s placement (buildings, cars, asphalt, etc.). The Kevlar layers of the bomb suit mitigate this risk.
2. Blast wave.
Along with physical matter exploding from the device, energy, typically in the form of sound waves, races outward from an explosion. Where this blast wave reaches a density junction—open air to the human body, for instance—the speed of the wave will change relative to the density of the material. Blast waves move slowly through air, and more quickly through a human body dense with muscles and organs and bones. This velocity change can induce shearing forces that cause intestinal hemorrhage, blast lung, internal bleeding and traumatic brain injury. A sophisticated sandwich of high- and low-density foams and plastics built into the suit absorb energy from the blast wave, lessening the impact when the wave reaches the body.
3. Thermal effects.
All explosives work by releasing incredible amounts of energy in very short amounts of time. This energy transfer appears in the form of light, sound, pressure and heat. Sound and pressure are responsible for the dangers of projectiles and blast waves, but the heat effects can be equally dangerous, with temperatures hot enough to ignite nearly anything in the surrounding environment, including humans. Fire-retardant materials coat the exterior of the suit to reduce and prevent burns and thermal trauma.
Features of the suit:
- Average weight: 15 lbs.
- Average cost: $15,000
EOD 9 bomb suit
- Average weight: 55 lbs.
- Average cost: $28,000
HOW TO JOIN EOD
If you think you have what it takes to stare into the innards of a bomb or UXO, talk to your chain of command about becoming an 89D EOD specialist. To be eligible, you’ll need to meet the following requirements:
- Must be ranked private first class through sergeant
- Must have an ASVAB general maintenance score of 104
- Must be eligible for top secret clearance
- Must have normal color vision
- Must have a valid state driver’s license
- Cannot be allergic to explosives
- Minimum physical profile on the PULHES scale of 111121
- Must successfully complete the interview process
- Must volunteer for EOD program