FORT LEE, Va. (Feb. 17, 2021) – In a classroom at the rear of Rose Hall, a group of advanced individual training students seemed uncharacteristically casual, as did their Explosive Ordnance Disposal Training Facility instructors.
The noncommissioned officer in the room was amiable and obliging and learners seemed at ease, sometimes smiling and engaging in light conversation. The topic of the day was remote controlled robots – one of the perennial favorites of a high-stress, technically saturated EOD Specialist Course, seven weeks of which takes place at Fort Lee followed by seven months of Phase II training at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.
Robotics are an important component of EOD operations, serving as a mitigating factor in the application of deactivation strategies, pointed out Staff Sgt. Daniel L. Dreibelbis, the on-site instructor.
“They play a significant role in real-world operations,” he further noted. “EOD teams are required to conduct the initial approach to any IED incident using a robot so as not to unnecessarily risk a Soldier’s life, per doctrine.
“If an EOD team has the ability to continue prosecuting the incident remotely, it is required that they do so, provided they are not increasing the risk to others’ lives or the completion of the mission,” the staff sergeant said. “It makes simple, logical sense – one cannot be hurt by an explosive device if one is not within the effective radius.”
Many of the EOD robots used in the operational Army are wireless-controlled tracked vehicle measuring 1-2-feet high and 18 inches long. They usually feature at least one manipulator arm equipped with cameras and a gripping claw capable of lifting or retrieving devices. The price range per robot can range from $40,000 to $150,000.
During the familiarization, students learned to set up and program the controller, which is then used to maneuver the robot through an obstacle course with an ultimate goal of retrieving a stuffed toy.
“The precision involved with robotics has to be impeccable,” said 21-year-old Pvt. Hunter Thomason after his turn at the joystick.
For “Gen-Zers” like him, operating the machines may have evoked memories of playing video games while slouched on couches at home. That connection put many students at ease, opening their minds to learning a key capability for future endeavors.
“Really, what could you not like about robotics instruction?” Thomason posed. “It’s a chance to get our hands on some of the tools EOD personnel use in the field,”
What up-and-coming EOD specialists learn at the Army Ordnance School on Fort Lee serves as a primer for much more intense instruction during Phase II at the Navy EOD School on Eglin AFB.
“Students will receive three days of robotics instruction during Phase II consisting of familiarization, practical exercises involving reconnaissance of IEDs, and placing demolition charges as well as a practical exam,” Dreibelbis said.
While it is fractional to the entire course load, robotics instruction offers a glimpse of the overall Army EOD training program’s level of difficulty. It is a demanding, detailed-oriented environment focused on hands-on learning to help Soldiers survive in one of the most dangerous career fields in the Army.
“There is very little room for error,” said Dreibelbis, referring to Phase II. “To be perfectly frank, it is not difficult work, but …it takes steady nerves, for one. If you are the type of person who gets real jittery about testing, it’s generally not going to go well for you. … Other than that, it’s just hard work; keeping your nose to the grindstone … because it’s mentally exhausting.”
That is exactly the kind of challenge that appeals to Soldiers like Thomason, who said he wants to work among the best trained personnel in the military.
“I think it comes down to ‘Someone has to do it,’” he said, “and I see no better way of serving the military and serving my country than by taking on the challenges this job affords me.”
The 89D EOD Course at Fort Lee graduates roughly 240 officers and enlisted Soldiers on a yearly basis. The Ordnance School is part of the Combined Arms Support Command at the Sustainment Center of Excellence.