Tick, tick, boom: EOD Airman risk it all to save lives, protect property.
Explosive ordnance disposal technicians perform one of the most dangerous missions in the military and have adapted their equipment and technology to meet the ever-changing tactics of their adversaries. (U.S. Air Force video/Andrew Breese)
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Sweaty, heart pounding and breathing heavily, Tech. Sgt. Joshua Langdon pushes a knife into the soft dirt, prodding it for signs of anything suspicious.
At first, he finds nothing. Then, he finds it--the sound of metal on metal as his blade hits something solid. A twinge of fear runs through him, as he realizes it's exactly what he was hoping it wasn't.
It's a bomb.
On the outside, Langdon seems calm. Each movement is slow and steady. Inside, his thoughts are racing.
Mostly, he's going over his training, trying to determine what kind of explosive device this might be and how he's going to disarm it. But, in the back of his mind, there is that sliver of a thought he can't shake whenever he steps toward the unknown.
It's the one thought explosive ordnance disposal technicians try not to ever entertain, but it is always there.
"This could be it. This could be the one that takes me out."
It's a realistic thought. EOD is one of the most dangerous jobs in the Air Force, having claimed the lives of 20 technicians since 2006 alone.
"What we do is scary," said Staff Sgt. Darrell Knowlton, an EOD technician with the 1st Special Operations Civil Engineer Squadron out of Hurlburt Field, Fla. "But you try not to think of it that way. You just look at it as a job and you go out and do it."
Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan kicked off in the early 2000s, the danger has increased. Now, instead of taking care of unexploded ordnance found on bases or blowing up a building, EOD technicians are in combat zones scouring the desert and terrain for their new enemy: improvised explosive devices.
Once a rarely-heard acronym, IED is now a household name--and no group is more familiar with the term than EOD technicians.
"When I joined, you never heard about IEDs," said Langdon. "Today, the majority of our training and day-to-day activities are centered on knowing how to identify IEDs, how to find them and how to get rid of them."
The reason: no two IEDs look alike. They come in all shapes and sizes; some have remote detonators, some manual. Even the types and amounts of explosives vary from bomb to bomb.
"We have to make sure our EOD techs know what to look for," said Staff Sgt. Darrell Knowlton, an EOD technician with the 1st Special Operations Civil Engineer Squadron out of Hurlburt Field, Fla. "Knowledge is power ... and is what we use to save lives."
Saving lives is a priority, too. Every explosive device removed or disarmed is another death or injury averted.
"Our mission is to protect life, property and equipment," said Senior Airman Ryan Hoagland, an EOD technician with the 48th CES out of Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England. "So we go where the IEDs are, and, right now in Afghanistan, that could be anywhere."
IEDs are commonly referred to as roadside bombs, but this name is misleading. Many are nowhere near a road, and are instead found in villages, near disabled equipment or in abandoned enemy positions.
"Finding an IED or other explosive device is not a rare thing," Langdon said. "As an EOD tech, you stay pretty busy when you're deployed."
This has led to a significant culture change within the EOD community. In the early days of the Middle East conflicts, EOD teams were typically mounted, meaning they rode around in vehicles while looking for explosive devices. Over the past few years, though, EOD teams have started ditching their vehicles for heavy packs and are walking "dismounted" patrols.
"This is definitely something new to us," Langdon said. "But it makes sense, because now we're actually walking the same areas as the ground pounders and special operations teams."
But, they aren't alone. Each team carries a small, versatile robot that can go just about anywhere, and, when controlled by an experienced technician, can detect and disarm many explosive devices.
Called a model 310 robot, these machines are typically used as recon for an EOD team.
"It takes the human element out of finding bombs," Hoagland said. "So instead of putting one of our guy's lives at risk, we are letting a robot go out there to look around."
To control the robot, the operator wears a special set of glasses. One eyepiece is blacked out and the other contains a small screen that displays what the robot's onboard cameras see and has a menu system that allows the operator to control different aspects of the robot.
The operator controls the robot's movements with a video game controller that has been reprogrammed to work with the robot.
"Young technicians coming in today are usually pretty familiar with video games and controllers, so this makes it easier for them to control our robots," said Langdon.
This is another example of how EOD is using technology to its benefit. Even the robots themselves keep getting smaller, smarter and more robust.
"Back when we first went into Iraq and Afghanistan, we had some robots that weighed over 700 pounds," Langdon said. "Now, we have robots that weigh 30 pounds and guys wear them on their backs when they perform dismounted operations."
Even with technology, nothing about EOD operations is fast. Their mission, by nature, is a slow, deliberate process that takes a lot of time and patience.
"Any time you're dealing with explosives, you have to take your time," Knowlton said. "There's a perception out there that we just show up somewhere, blow something up and leave. But, the reality is really a lot different."
This reality usually means hours instead of minutes. Even with their mechanized helpers, finding, identifying and then trying to dispose of an explosive device can take even an experienced EOD team a long time.
They don't mind taking their time, because being thorough often means the difference between leaving a scene in one piece or in a body bag.
"A fast technician is usually a dead or injured one," Langdon said.
Call of Duty
Dealing in danger is nothing new to EOD. But, for those on the outside, there is one question that keeps popping up.
"People always ask me why the heck I do this job," Knowlton said. "I just tell them that I love what I do."
This sentiment is shared by many in the EOD community. To them, EOD isn't just a job, it's a sense of belonging.
"EOD is a very tight community," Langdon said. "It's very small, very tight and we all get along."
Much of this is due to the nature of the business--working in a risky career field brings people together. But, for many, this community-mindedness is also due to a strong desire to serve.
"What we do has a direct impact on the Air Force's mission in the Middle East," said Senior Airman Aaron Haak, an EOD technician with the 775th CES out of Hill AFB, Utah. "You know that the job you do every day is an important one. And, at the end of the day, you want to go out there, find that bomb and take care of it, so it doesn't injure or kill someone else."
STORY BY TECH. SGT. MATTHEW BATES
PHOTOS BY TECH. SGT. BENNIE J. DAVIS III
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|Date:||Jul 1, 2013|
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