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Far from sea, Navy specialists defuse roadside bombs.

A growing number of the Navy's explosive ordnance disposal experts are being detailed to Army and Marine units in Iraq to help neutralize the improvised bombs and other unexploded ordnance that litter the landscape.

Traditionally, Navy EOD technicians specialize in clearing explosive hazards at sea, in ports and along coastal areas. Recently, however, many of them have deployed deep inside Iraq, where U.S. military forces now must contend with about 30 roadside bombs a week, double the number of a year ago.

"The Army and Marines just don't have enough [explosive-disposal] teams," explained Lt. Steve Gilbert, officer in charge of the Navy's EOD Mobile Unit 2, Det. 20. "So they sent out a request for forces, and the Navy had the personnel to support them."

As a result, Navy teams are being detailed to Army units in Iraq. For example, Gilbert's detachment, based at Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base, Va., recently returned from a six-month deployment to Baghdad.

"We were assigned to the 63rd Ordnance Battalion," Gilbert told National Defense.

The 63rd is part of the 52nd Ordnance Group (EOD), which provides explosive-disposal teams for the entire Army. The detachment worked with units of the 1st Cavalry Division in and around Baghdad.

Members of the detachment agreed to talk about their deployment in general, but were careful not to discuss operational details. "We can't get too much into specifics," warned Gunner's Mate 1st Class Scott Mielock.

"We dealt with everything from VBIEDs (vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, or car bombs) to hand grenades--everything you could think of," said Chief Petty Officer Randolph Lawson, the detachment's senior enlisted man.

During the deployment, the unit--which is made up of EOD eight technicians--responded to 567 calls for assistance, including 60 or so post-blast incidents, Lawson said. If the device already has exploded, EOD specialists conduct an investigation.

"We try to figure out how the device was made and sized," he said. "We gather fragments. Based on experience, we often can tell a lot about the device."

Military intelligence specialists are keen to know where the bombs originated. "Most of the ordnance is foreign," Lawson said. "It's not only Russian. It's Bulgarian, Chinese, Yugoslavian, Egyptian, Iranian-from basically anybody who makes ordnance."

There is plenty of it needing attention, Gilbert noted. "A lot of munitions--like mortar rounds or RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades)--are just lying around on the ground."

EOD teams frequently are called in to investigate. U.S. commanders would like to see the teams respond more quickly. "The challenge that we have is not so much the number of EOD personnel, but the coordination and ... the speed with which we can get them out to the locations," said Army Maj. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, head of Multinational Force Northwest, in a video news conference from Iraq.

"It takes us approximately 30 to 40 minutes to respond," he said. Rodriguez would like to see that response time shortened to 10 to 20 minutes, he said.

When the teams arrive on the scene, they often find that the bomb reports are hoaxes, Gilbert said. During Detachment 20's deployment, it investigated 198 reports of IEDs. Only 111 turned out to be real, he said.

When U.S. troops find a possible explosive, "they secure the site, and we make it safe," Gilbert explained. "Sometimes we dismantle [the devices]; sometimes we blow them up. It depends on the circumstances.

"If [the device] is something that we've seen before and we know we don't have to call in military intelligence, we use C-4 and blow it up." C-4 is a plastic explosive that is highly malleable and relatively safe to handle. "It's our most used tool," Gilbert said.

Using a bomb to destroy a bomb is the preferred method of disposal, because it is less risky than dismantling a device, he explained. "If it's nothing new, why would you put somebody in danger trying to dismantle it?"

Another alternative in dealing with explosives is to use a robot to investigate them. Detachment 20 uses the Talon IIIB, made by Foster-Miller, of Waltham, Mass. It comes equipped with a variety of sensors and tools that enable it to investigate suspected bombs and disrupt or disable them. It can be mounted with an M 16 5.56 mm or Barrett .50 caliber sniper rifle, or with an M240 or M249 machine gun, all of which can be used to disable IEDs from a distance.

The Talon is an all-terrain, all-weather tracked vehicle, with a top speed of 4 mph. "It's a fast robot," Gilbert said. "That's why we like it. The less time we're out there, the less time somebody has to take a shot at you."

In all, there are 200 Talons in Iraq, Foster-Miller General Manager Robert E. Quinn told National Defense. Since 2002, the company has received approximately $70 million in contracts to produce Talons for use in Iraq and Afghanistan. The firm has established a facility at Camp Victory in Iraq to repair the robots.

The Talon, however, is not the only anti-explosive robot employed in Iraq. In March of this year, the Navy awarded an $18 million deal for iRobot Corp. for rapid deployment of more than 150 copies of the PackBot EOD robot to Iraq and Afghanistan. The PackBot is small enough to be carried by a single person. It is equipped with a lightweight, ruggedized OmniReach Manipulator System that can reach two meters in any direction to assess and disrupt IEDs, military ordnance, land mines and other incendiary devices, explained Joe Dyer, iRobot's executive vice president.

EOD technicians sometimes employ Army snipers to disable bombs, but it is rare. "About the only time we use them is to shoot out the windows of a car bomb," Gilbert said. "That helps us see more clearly what's inside the car without the sun's glare on the window."

Sometimes, the technicians allow their Army security detail to shoot suspected IEDs. "It gives them something to do," said Machinist's Mate 2nd Class Tempi Devers. "They like that."

Devers is the only woman in Detachment 20 and one of 11 female EOD technicians in the entire Navy. In all, the Navy has 858 enlisted EOD technicians, male and female, and 269 EOD officers, including seven women.

When an EOD technician is required to inspect a suspected explosive up close, he or she can wear an EOD 8 Bomb Suit, made by Med-Eng Systems Inc., of Ottawa, Ontario. The EOD 8 is designed to protect against fragmentation, overpressure, impact and heat. It includes a jacket, trousers, groin protector and full-face helmet, with a floating visor system to aid visibility.

"It's like something from Star Wars," Gilbert said. But, he added, the EOD 8 does have its limitations. For one thing, at 70 pounds, it's heavy.

Still, he said, "it does provide limited protection against fragmentation--not a lot--but it's better than nothing."

When not wearing the bomb suit, the Navy technicians are equipped much like the ground troops with whom they are deployed, with the same helmets, body armor and M16 rifles. They even wear the same battle dress uniforms.

"We don't want to make it any easier for the bad buys to tell us apart from the soldiers," Lawson said. "The difference between us and them is that when those guys are loading up with bullets, we're loading up with zip ties, electric tape, pliers and screwdrivers."

Despite technicians' efforts to blend in with the soldiers, insurgent snipers often targeted them. "We came under fire several times," Gilbert said. "It happened enough so that you almost got used to it. It got to the point that we could do our job without worrying about it."

Despite all of the shooting, nobody in the detachment was wounded. Others were not so lucky, Gilbert said.

"One of our security personnel was hit by the tail of an RPG," he said. "It punctured one of his lungs. We got back him to base in about eight minutes. They flew him to Germany, and he's fine now."

Even less lucky was an Iraqi police EOD technician who picked up a device just as the U.S. team was arriving on the scene. The device "exploded in his hand," Gilbert said. "There was nothing left of him."

The Iraqi team "learned as lesson that we already knew: If you have a robot, use it," he noted. "They had one, and now they've started using it."

U.S. EOD specialists, across the services, have suffered significant casualties in the current fighting. In May, technicians from the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines gathered at the EOD Memorial at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., site of the joint services bomb-disposal school, to honor two Marine and three Army specialists who died in the line of duty this year.

Such losses are hard to replace. At the moment, the Navy's EOD ranks are only about 85 percent filled.

The Navy is trying hard to fill those vacancies, but standards are high. In addition to coping with explosives, Navy EOD technicians frequently deploy with special operations units, and they have to be able to keep up, Gilbert said.

EOD specialists must complete 51 weeks of rigorous training, with instruction in diving, ordnance demolition, helicopter-rope suspension, parachuting, small arms and handling marine mammals. Fitness standards also are stiff. Candidates must be able to:

* Swim 500 meters within 14 minutes.

* Perform 42 pushups, 50 sit-ups and six pull-ups.

* Run 1.5 miles in 12 minutes, 45 seconds.

Those who can meet such requirements and are willing to accept the risks of EOD work can get extra monthly compensation for their skills, including $225 for diving, $150 for hazardous duty and $150 for parachuting, in addition to their regular pay. To retain experienced personnel, the navy offers reenlistment bonuses up to $45,000 for EOD technicians with at least six years of service.

The hard training and risks give Navy EOD teams an esprit de corps and camaraderie that set them apart from other military units, technicians said.

"We're real tight, real close," Mielock said. "I'd say laid back. When we're trying to work, we work, and when we relax, we relax." By contrast, Army units with whom Detachment 20 served "ran a tight ship," he said.

As a result, relations between the two were sometimes a little tense. The situation was made worse by the fact that the two services have different standard operating procedures for EOD work. "They wanted us to follow Army rules, not ours," Gilbert said. "Some issues never got resolved."

For example, he said: "The Navy respects expertise and experience. The Army respects rank."
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Author:Kennedy, Harold
Publication:National Defense
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Oct 1, 2005
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