Issue Date: October 11, 2004
‘The longest walk’
Danger and the chance to save lives motivates EOD techs
By Gina Cavallaro
Times staff writer
FORT KNOX, Ky. — You’ve seen them at work in Iraq and Afghanistan: Small teams of stressed-out soldiers speeding around in little box trucks, tinkering with remote-controlled robots or walking alone on booby-trapped roads wearing what look like armored space suits.
They don’t pull guard duty. They don’t pull security duty. They don’t do windows.
And don’t call them engineers.
They’re explosive ordnance disposal technicians — the “bomb guys.” They do only what they’re trained to do and they’re in such high demand that the Army is putting up some of the heftiest enlistment, re-enlistment and reclassification bonuses out there to get more soldiers into the growing field.
“EOD is about the only field in the Army that is rapidly expanding to meet” demand, said 1st Sgt. David Puig of the 703rd Ordnance Company (EOD), based here. “We’re picking up six more companies, a new group headquarters and three more battalions.”
The urgency stems chiefly from the proliferation of ambush bombings — more than 500 every month in Iraq, where thousands of coalition soldiers have been wounded or killed by remote-detonated bombs planted along main supply routes. The homemade bombs are known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, a term that has come into its own.
“Before Operation Iraqi Freedom, the term IED was only heard in ordnance or law enforcement circles. People understood the term homemade bomb, but now there isn’t an American who doesn’t know the term IED at some level,” said Command Sgt. Maj. James Clifford, command sergeant major for the 52nd Explosive Ordnance Group (EOD) at Fort Gillem, Ga.
According to Clifford’s shop, EOD technicians at work in Iraq have responded so far to 22,000 ordnance disposal incidents, conducted close to 1,000 post-blast investigations, destroyed 3.1 million pieces of ordnance and 7.5 million pounds of explosives.
EOD teams have also responded to and rendered safe more than 2,500 IEDs.
And that’s just the military part of the job. About half of EOD techs also work with the Secret Service to protect the president and perform bomb sweeps at major events such as the recent United Nations General Assembly and the Democratic and Republican national conventions. They also respond to emergency requests from civilian authorities across the country and in Germany and South Korea. All that, and there are only 761 in the active Army.
The EOD corps’ 37 companies of 22 soldiers each are now operating with about 81 percent of their authorized capacity. One-third of those companies are regularly deployed. In fiscal 2005, that authorization will climb to 1,024 troops and again to 1,068 in fiscal 2006, according to Human Resources Command.
The right stuff
There is plenty of money being offered to the right soldiers, who must be volunteers to get the job. And re-enlisting in Iraq makes the bonus tax-free.
A soldier enlisting in the Army for EOD can get a maximum bonus of $16,000. Re-enlistment bonuses are high for first-term, midcareer and career soldiers, and bonuses for reclassing — which are only open to first-term soldiers — can be substantial for longer commitments.
Most EOD soldiers on duty today reclassed into the job, which enriches the EOD corps a great deal, Puig said, because they bring a second set of skills with them to a tightknit organization.
The primary motivator in the EOD field is the ability to save lives, but the lure of doing something dangerous and unique inspires many as well.
“We know it is such an inherently dangerous job that we go totally by the book; we have to take in all safety considerations,” Puig said, acknowledging that it takes nerve to make what he calls “the longest walk” to a bomb.
“It’s not uncommon for an EOD team to go on four or five missions a day [in Iraq]. The guys setting the bombs up know the EOD guys will eventually show up,” Puig said.
“When infantry guys go out on patrol, they are looking for the enemy. We know where the enemy is and we are walking into an ambush every time. That piece of ordnance could explode while we’re working on it,” said Puig, whose company lost two soldiers — Staff Sgt. Kimberly Voelz and Staff Sgt. Richard Ramey — who were defusing IEDs. The two had just re-enlisted and Voelz clung to life long enough for her husband, Staff Sgt. Max Voelz, another EOD tech, to make it to the hospital before she died Dec. 12. Ramey had received a Purple Heart two weeks before he was killed.
Five EOD soldiers have been killed in Iraq. The specialty (89D) may seem to have one of the highest fatality rates for any military occupational specialty, but that number is skewed because it’s such a small career field, Puig said.
Still, the rate of injury among EOD soldiers is less than 0.1 percent, Clifford said.
So, while the notion that a job in EOD is a dance with death has a great deal of truth to it, the EOD techs are confident they have one of the safest jobs in the Army because of the high standards placed on the meticulous application of their skills and the quality of soldier who goes EOD.
“The level of skill and quality of our soldiers is so high because we get to pick and choose who gets to become EOD,” said Puig, a former medic who’s been an EOD soldier for 17 years.
Candidates for an EOD job have to meet specific standards and will be put through some basic cognitive skills tests, such as demonstrating how well they can maneuver their bodies and fingers and maintain a cool attitude inside the oppressive 70-pound bomb suit they’ll most likely wear at some point.
EOD soldiers cannot be colorblind, claustrophobic or allergic to explosives, and must have a score of 105 or better on general mechanical.
After a candidate passes muster with a company’s leadership, which hand-picks the top candidates, the schooling process begins with about 90 days in the company with some on-the-job training before shipping out for six weeks at Redstone Arsenal, Ala., and seven months at the Naval School Explosive Ordnance Disposal at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., a joint school run by the Navy.
Before a candidate can begin school, a background investigation must be initiated and must favor the soldier for a top-secret security clearance, another requirement for the job.
What separates the EOD tech from the engineer is plenty, said Clifford, a 26-year veteran of the MOS.
“It’s a different discipline. You wouldn’t send a proctologist to do a heart operation. … They’re both doctors, but they’ve gone in different directions in their careers,” he said.
EOD soldiers are so marketable on the outside that they have the option of seeking good jobs in law enforcement and emergency management agencies after about 10 years. But, Clifford said, “they stay in because they love being EOD soldiers.”
‘A great job opportunity’
EOD techs are more deliberate and precise in the way they use explosives and, more important, Puig said, EOD techs do forensic analysis of the explosives and devices, and they can share that information about the enemy’s tactical patterns and materials used with coalition forces.
“Engineers are great at blowing stuff up. But if there’s a 500-pound bomb found next to a hospital, they can’t handle that. They’re going to blow the hospital, too,” Puig said.
The EOD guys said they’re looking to fill their ranks with in-service recruits, men and women who can compartmentalize stress and who like to work in small teams.
Oh, and there’s $150 a month for demolition pay, too.
“It’s a great job opportunity,” Puig said.
Spc. Timothy Haar has been a member of the 703rd EOD Company since he joined the Army 26 months ago. He liked the idea of “getting to blow stuff up” and he thought the VIP missions sounded intriguing, he said.
But, he warned, the job can be harsh, especially in Iraq. Tours there are only six months, but the operational tempo on the ground is hectic and the work is stressful. The 20-year-old Chicago native said he plans to re-enlist because he loves the job, but admits it took getting used to.
“Walking down on a bomb really takes the air out of some people’s sails, but once you get past that, it’s the best job in the Army,” Haar said.
I got this today too from one of our contract UXO Techs.
They guys make some real good money $25-$45/ hour doing contract work on UXO sites here in the states.