FORT LEE, Va. (March 31, 2021) – When the war has ended, its work has just begun.
The Humanitarian Demining Training Center’s impact can be felt across continents, countries and conflicts as a post-war resource supporting the removal of explosive remnants of battle amongst other efforts to make places safe again.
That primarily means training select U.S. military personnel in landmine and battle area clearance with the expectation of them sharing those skills and knowledge with partner nations who have common security interests.
“Our mission is an integral part of stabilization and recovery operations for the Department of Defense,” said Jonathan Green, HDTC director. “As a part of stabilization operations, our programs are designed to dispose of explosive remnants of war, in which the materials may become precursors for weapons used by state or non-state actors. Those ERWs can potentially be used in whole or in part in some capacity against our partners, allies and interests.”
HDTC’s mission also includes assisting partner nations with explosive ordnance disposal, physical security and stockpile management of conventional munitions until the excess or unsecure materials are destroyed.
“We have a unique mission,” said Angel Belen, HDTC deputy director. “We’re the only entity in the entire Department of Defense that provides post-conflict assistance to partner nations in the removal, disposal or rendering safe of explosives that can cause harm to people, farming, industry or anything vital to restoration and development.”
HDTC uses a train-the-trainer approach to mission execution. Five civilian instructors at Fort Lee are charged with training military and civilian members from DOD and other federal agencies in the administration of DOD’s Humanitarian Mine Action programs, which are overseen by HDTC’s parent organization, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency. Course graduates go on to train personnel in countries all over the world, supporting long-term strategies for ERW removal.
“For example in Colombia, HDTC trained a hundred de-miners in instruction, curriculum development, presentation skills and landmine clearance drills,” Belen said. “They, in turn, have trained over 5,000 others so far.”
On a fundamental level, the HDTC mission is centered on the administrative requirements of HMA project execution but does not neglect explosives disposal vocational skills requirements. Students attending HDTC courses possess military occupational certifications from military department Explosive Ordnance Disposal, Infantry, Engineer, Medical or dive schools. At HDTC, students learn application of those skills in the HMA domain and are taught policy and law, surveying, how to tailor instruction to partner nation conditions, and project planning and execution.
Martin DuMond, a landmine clearance training instructor, came to HDTC in 2007 after working years in Army civil affairs, which introduced him to landmine issues in developing countries.
“Being a civil affairs guy, we would go to Latin America quite a bit for a lot of humanitarian assistance missions. (We visited) very remote parts of countries where you would sometimes see children without shoes, so whenever you can do something for people who are impoverished, that’s kind of what I wanted to do.”
When he came aboard 14 years ago, HDTC’s only mission was landmine clearance.
“I’ve seen HDTC transition over the years,” said DuMond, noting the organization expanded its mission capability around 2009. “I’ve seen many modifications to the authority and policy governing our program that broadened the scope of our capabilities.”
These days, DuMond splits his time between traveling to partner nations to assess training requirements for specific projects and providing training for U.S. military personnel assigned to execute those projects. Training subjects include humanitarian mine action law and policy, theory and instructional strategies.
“Part of what we’ve done in the past is prepare students to teach and introduce them to curriculum development because … if training material needs to be modified for the country, then they must make the modifications,” DuMond said. “Of course, we’re always there to support the units, but it’s important students learn how to instruct and how to tailor curriculums.”
In the EOD and Physical Security/Stockpile Management arena, instructors Chris Claire and Rommel Meza’s duties are similar to DuMond’s.
“Our primary jobs are helping the combatant command’s HMA program managers establish either EOD or PSSM projects in countries the combatant commands want to support,” said Claire, who spent time in the Marine Corps EOD field.
During visits, the instructors assess needs based on objectives and other factors, then make recommendations. Once the project is developed and approved, they move into classrooms.
“During a normal year, we’ll do seven or eight trips for about a week at a time,” said Claire, who joined HDTC three years ago. “We probably teach once a month, and it’s typically a weeklong course.”
Meza, a former Navy EOD technician, said when he became an HDTC team member four years ago, the EOD-PSSM mission was next to nonexistent.
“There was more work for landmine clearance,” he remembered, “but there have been a lot of unplanned explosions at munition sites (over the last few years) – from Kazakhstan to Ukraine to the recent one in Equatorial Guinea – that have been alarming.”
PSSM encompasses the practices and systems related to the proper storage, handling and security of munitions and weapons facilities.
The explosions, said Meza, were likely caused by deteriorating legacy ordnance or mishandling due to a lack of training. Poor management and security also are critical issues leading to misappropriation of explosives by criminals.
“Physical security has been horrible to the point of proliferation in which explosives are being used for roadside bombs against U.S. forces,” he said. “That has resulted in greater awareness regarding the protection of stockpiled ammunition.”
Ultimately, PSSM and EOD saves lives and helps to rebuild places affected by war, said Meza.
“By providing HMA support – whether it’s through physical security or stockpile management or Explosive Ordnance Disposal capabilities – you’re rendering safe unexploded ordnance or moving explosives hazards away to allow communities to resettle and rebuild.”
Bill Grau, an HMA program analyst, said helping countries reestablish after war can never be understated.
“I’ve been doing this for a while, and I’m still motivated by the fact that what we’re doing is saving lives,” said the former Navy master chief, deep sea diver and corpsman. “You’re not an EMT guy doing it, but you’re saving lives and I totally believe that. How many people die or get hurt from landmines per year? Thirty thousand?”
Grau, who manages the HDTC underwater mine and casualty care program – travels extensively, mentoring combatant command program managers and helping to establish HMA programs. He said in some parts of the world it is fairly common to see adults and children maimed as a result of mines. The images offer reminders that ERWs in the absence of mitigation are serious matters threatening lives and livelihoods for what could be generations.
“The problem is this perpetuates cycles of poverty,” said Grau, noting ERWs can prevent countries from pursuing agricultural, recreational and business interests. “You have millions of acres of farmland you can’t even use because of landmines. I feel good that the work we’re doing is something to help countries become whole again. … I think that’s awesome.”
Program Analyst Cynthia B. Howard – she and Michelle M. Crist form the core of HDTC’s admin staff – said the overarching HDTC mission is not high profile and is often overlooked.
“I had no idea this particular organization taught my Soldiers landmine clearance before we went into theater,” said the former Army command sergeant major about her unit’s Southwest Asia deployment. “I’m glad to be part of an organization that gives back.”
Crist and Howard spend the bulk of their time assessing operations, improving processes and identifying trends. They had to make adjustments during the pandemic, helping to lay the foundation for a virtual training program providing mission continuity amid widespread travel restrictions. In-person training resumed March 23 and Crist said she is encouraged operations are returning to normal.
“I am a very hands-on person, and when you’re talking about the mission of this organization, I think it is important students are returning,” she said. “I think the benefits of in-person training far outweighs that of virtual training.”
Over the past year, Crist said HDTC managed to train 230 personnel through distance learning and that avenue of instruction has found a permanent space within the curriculum.
“We’ve seen that it is very effective, especially for the pre-requisites,” she said. “Of course, there are some classes that require a physical presence such as Landmine Clearance Course, but many don’t.”
In the next six months, HDTC expects to train 800 students via in-person and virtual training, Crist further noted. It is not clear how those numbers will break down.
Returning to normal operations also will resume HDTC efforts to improve training and facilities, Green added.
“We’re all excited about getting folks back in here. …We’ve got a lot of activities we’re going to bring to the center. We’re finishing our mockup (site) in the training area; fencing and guard towers are going up and so is a simulated ammunition depot.
“We also plan to build the humanitarian demining village north and south and have actors come in,” Green continued. “We are doing a lot to make training much more realistic for students, which is what commanders want. If they’re going to send their unit personnel here, we need to provide the most realistic training possible, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
HDTC was established in 1996. It was formerly headquartered at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., before relocating to Fort Lee in 2014 to gain greater access to DSCA, which is located in Northern Virginia.