A quick course in problem solving
July 18, 2008
By Rachel Young
FORT LEWIS, Wash. - Deep in the woods, nearly obscured by overgrowth, infantry Soldiers uncovered a house full of weapons and wired to the hilt with hidden explosives.
With an infantry Soldier down after stepping on a buried explosive, it was the time for a team from the 787th Ordnance Company to go to work. Sergeant Tim Mahoney and his team rolled up to the house and deployed a robot as Mahoney began to circle the building, looking for wires and explosives. Next, he carefully entered the house, located the fallen infantryman, and began to plan the best way to extricate him before clearing the building of explosives.
But before Mahoney could get the Soldier to safety, another explosion rocked the house, leaving the sergeant wounded and screaming for help.
Team member, Spc. John Taylor, entered the house, carefully inspecting the area for trip wires and explosives as he went. He medically assessed his sergeant before dragging both the infantryman and Mahoney to safety. Then, Taylor went to work clearing the house of explosives. Slowly, methodically, and with the occasional muttered comment to himself, Taylor moved from room to room, snipping trip wires and inspecting cracks, crevices and piles of debris for hidden explosives.
This was just one of the many scenarios facing 787th Ord. Co. Soldiers during team-leader certifications last week.
Normally, a sergeant would begin his team-leader training in an EOD company by being mentored by current team leaders. However, because 787th Ord. Co. is new to Fort Lewis and still building its ranks, there are few seasoned team leaders to share their experience. So, company commander Capt. Robert Shefner decided to create a weeklong training containing 12 scenarios, including night missions, that his potential team leaders might see when they deploy next year. The scenarios tested their EOD skills as well as some other attributes.
"There are three key attributes for a team leader; it's not only your EOD skill sets," Shefner said. He also looks for maturity, decision-making skills and judgement. "Without those three attributes, I don't care how skilled you are, ... if you don't have the maturity and judgement to apply those skills in the right situation, then you're not good to me."
These skills are particularly important to EOD teams because they operate independently most of the time.
"I send guys out and I might not see them for two or three days," Shefner said. "I have to be able to trust them to pace themselves and deal with situations that arise without calling back constantly for supervision."
The 787th Ord. Co.'s sister unit, the 707th Ordnance Company, recently returned from a deployment. Shefner drew on their experiences down range to write the scenarios for his unit's training. He also got the 707th's Soldiers, like company 1st Sgt. Brian Curtis, to help with the evaluations.
Curtis was evaluating Soldiers on a scenario that required the team leader to retrieve the body of an Iraqi child from a field riddled with submunitions.
"The intent is that we don't want anyone else to get hurt," Curtis said. "This is also part of winning the hearts and minds, trying to recover the body without it being damaged any further."
As Curtis watched the evaluations, he looked for several attributes in the potential team leaders.
"I'm looking for a guy that's looking ahead, planning, communicating what he's going to do with his team members and just having a controlled access to this," he said. For the particular scenario, Curtis was looking for the team leader to create a safe path in and out of the field in case someone else, like a litter team or a team member, had to enter the field also.
"The biggest thing I would say about team leaders is that I want a guy that is responsible and is a great problem solver," he said.
For Mahoney, a fairly new member of the EOD ranks, the most important part of the training was the learning.
"It's a lot of learning points," Mahoney said. "We're making some mistakes along the way, but learning from everything we do."
Because Mahoney is new to EOD, he did not expect to pass the certification and become a team leader yet. What was valuable to him was the experience, he said.
"Instead of just thinking about a problem, or talking my way through it, I was actually going down and running through the steps and seeing where I needed to improve," he said. He hoped to learn about the job of a team leader and also improve his skills at the same time. And he wasn't having any trouble doing either.
Even on the scenarios that seemed easy, he still learned a little something with every iteration, he said.
Mahoney came to EOD from the ranks of military intelligence, but, after a deployment to Iraq, he decided wanted to do something that had a more direct impact on force protection, he said.
"This was a way...to have more of an impact on saving lives," he said.
Rachel Young is a reporter with Fort Lewis' Northwest Guardian.