Brains over bombs: Training for a mission where mistakes are lethal

  • Published
  • By Micah Garbarino
  • 75th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
On a windy Utah morning, under a cold, grey sky, an Airman moves his knife blade slowly through loose dirt toward a stick of dynamite with nitroglycerine crystals sweating through the paper casing.

The Airman isn't sweating, but maybe he should be. 

Standing over the Airman's shoulder, a master sergeant calmly asks, "Are you trying to kill us all?"

"No. What?"

"Think about it. What do you need to find out first?"

What follows is a detailed, scientific discussion on the chemical reactions of base compounds.

This was one of many lessons learned by Airmen in Hill Air Force Base's 775th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Flight during a weeklong training event here, Nov. 2-6.

While the stick of dynamite was inert, the training reinforced that the job of an Explosive Ordnance Technician requires much more than the willingness to don a bomb suit and put oneself in harm's way. It requires brains, training and "thick skin."

"We are our own worst critics," said Master Sgt. Richard Schmidt, training section chief at the 775th EOD Flight. "Correcting our mistakes in training will end up saving lives."

There were nearly a dozen scenarios designed by veteran EOD members to pass their knowledge down to younger Airmen, practicing in the field what had been learned in the classroom.

"We can sit around all day long and talk about this stuff, but until you face a problem for real, you don't really have that experience that can keep you alive," Schmidt said.

For half of the week, the flight concentrated on "stateside" scenarios -  X-raying suspicious packages, improvised explosive devices, investigating chemical weapons, processing a homemade explosives lab, conducting post-blast analysis.

They spent the second half of the week "freezing" in the snow in Utah's west desert, practicing deployed scenarios like land navigating to an improvised rocket launcher and disarming IEDs rigged with pressure plates.

Airmen who make it to an EOD unit have already survived one of the toughest schools in the Air Force, Schmidt said. It's nearly 10 months long and often Airmen don't know if they'll make it through or wash out on a day-to-day basis. While their initial training is rigorous, it can only go so far in developing a deployable EOD technician.

"School was tough. I've never been challenged like that before, certainly not in high school," said Airman 1st Class Cole Edwards of Manteca, California. "But, you're never going to learn everything. I've never been deployed, so it was good to get this experience in the field."

The job requires Airmen to be adept in math, chemistry, forensics, mechanics, advanced electrical circuits, and have the ability to put the knowledge to use under extreme pressure.

"You've got to know all that and be able to work with your hands and think on your feet," said Schmidt, a veteran of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. "Us old guys have been through this. We want to show them the techniques that will help them stay alive and get through the problem,"

Despite the stress and hazards of working in EOD, the community remains a tight-knit group, Schmidt said. Training and camping together in the frozen desert helps build trust and comradery.

"There's a certain level of trust that comes with graduating school," Schmidt said. "But, the more young Airmen are able to show their abilities to tackle a problem, the more trust and responsibility we give them."