ORISKANY, N.Y. - Donning 70 pound protective suits in scorching heat, New York Army National Guard Soldiers engaged explosive devices left in banks and restaurants, utilized state-of-the-art robotics and electronics, saved hostages from collar bombs, raided home-made explosive labs, and rescued children from terrorists on a bus.
Then they did it all over again.
Sixty Soldiers from the New York Army National Guard's 501st Explosive Ordnance Device (EOD) Battalion, and 1108th EOD Company trained for a week alongside 300 domestic and international EOD military and law enforcement personnel during an exercise called Raven's Challenge at the New York State Preparedness Training Center in Oriskany New York, June 22-26.
"The Raven's Challenge provided a state-of-the-art training opportunity, utilizing world class facilities, right in our own backyard," explained Lt. Col. Jason Souza, 53rd Assistant Operations Officer, New York Army National Guard.
This was the first year that the 501st and the 1108th EOD participated in the Raven's Challenge.
Started in 2004, the Raven's Challenge is a multiphase exercise designed to increase interoperability between public safety bomb squads and military explosive ordnance disposal units in the United States. It is conducted annually in four states and sponsored by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, in conjunction with federal partners.
This was New York's turn to host the event.
"Interoperability is the essence of this training mission," said Souza.
"Working together in this environment creates a valuable free-flow exchange of ideas and best practices."
The six New York Army and Air National Guard EOD teams, two active duty Army teams, 12 New York police department EOD teams, six other state police EOD teams, and Canadian EOD experts worked in pairs throughout the event
One military EOD team and one civilian agency team were matched together and responded to real world training scenarios.
"Two of the major benefits of being here are the realistic scenarios and environments," said Sgt. First Class Jeremy Blackie, a platoon sergeant with the 1108th EOD, New York Army National Guard. "Live fire lets you see and feel the results; you don't have to simulate anything."
Participants trained throughout 15 unique training areas, situated across 723 acres, and responded to 14 explosive related scenarios, which were derived from actual events.
One of the training areas is a multimillion dollar Cityscape that is designed not only with a level of detail that makes the participants feel immersed in a real location, but contains a bank, bar, and school that are reinforced to withstand actual detonations.
First Sgt. Eric Lautenschlager, the 1108th EOD's top non-commissioned officer, said that he's learned during his 10 years with the New York National Guard and almost 20 years of military service that establishing relationships with civilian agencies prior to engagement is crucial for safety and success.
"Integration with public safety bomb squads have been phenomenal," said Lautenschlager. "It's like we've been working together for years."
A key component to interoperability is the establishment of a baseline awareness. Knowing and understanding the different equipment and procedures that other agencies use is imperative interagency functionality and cohesion.
"Not only was this a good opportunity to forge bonds with local and international law enforcement," said 1 Lt. Rick Roney, the company commander with the 1108th EOD, New York Army National Guard, "but we got to showcase our abilities and put the New York National Guard on the map with the rest of the EOD community."
The culmination of the intense week-long training was a more efficient, streamlined and cohesive EOD community, participants said.
The New York Army National Guard Soldiers gained invaluable exposure to new technologies via hands on training, learned to adapt to different processes and equipment, and were challenged to apply new problem solving techniques.
"This event afforded us the opportunity to have non-military organizations design the problems, which created new and challenging situations. It forced everyone to adopt a military and civilian mindset," said Souza. "We look forward to participating in this event again."