KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. – Hand-picked American Soldiers from a one-of-a-kind U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal company that combats Weapons of Mass Destruction train for high stakes missions around the world.
U.S. Army EOD technicians from the 21st Ordnance Company (EOD WMD) “Blackjacks” provide support to defeat or mitigate the effects of Weapons of Mass Destruction.
The Army EOD technicians from the company train to reach Weapons of Mass Destruction wherever they are located.
U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher N. Tretta, the operations sergeant for the Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico-headquartered 21st EOD Company, said this unique mission can lead to some unique training opportunities.
The EOD teams even trained to climb and rappel on the Hoover Dam in Nevada.
“Tactical climbing, hoisting and rigging is a mission essential task that unit members must be proficient in conducting, as it's a crucial component of our unit's capabilities,” said Tretta. “The Hoover Dam complex, with all its massive concrete structures, like spillways and the dam itself, was an absolutely world-class training venue that continually challenged my team.”
The summer training exercise focused on hoisting and rigging in the unforgiving environment of extreme heat and sheer vertical drops.
With the temperature peaking at 122 degrees during the day, the EOD techs practiced hoisting heavy equipment from apertures in the spillway walls across hand-tensioned high lines over the gorge and then retrieving their payloads from confined spaces in very hard to reach areas.
“The training culminated on the last day with the 700-foot rappel off the face of the dam,” said Tretta. “This was obviously no ordinary rappel and special attention had to be given to rope length and weight and even the speed of descent, as too much speed would generate excessive heat in the rappel device and possibly melt the rope.”
Tretta said the 21st EOD Company team members are now among approximately 150 people to have rappelled down the dam face in its 92-year history.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime event and the highlight of the training. The scale of the dam is hard to comprehend and impossible to convey through words. Without qualification, I submit that the uniqueness of the venue and the extremely challenging nature of the training environment at the dam complex better prepared my team for our mission than any other single location in the U.S.,” said Tretta. “My team and I are privileged and honored to have taken part in such an amazing and unique training opportunity.”
Tretta said rappelling is the least complicated aspect of training for climbing missions that the unit trains to conduct around the world.
The 21st EOD Company team members must be able to physically hoist and rig heavy loads out of precarious spots.
“During each of our four team's train-up to assume international emergency response duties, they will conduct rigorous climbing, hoisting and rigging training,” said Tretta. “Many times, this training can culminate on Kirtland Air Force Base on a large shipping container stack meant to simulate containers stacked on cargo vessels crossing the ocean.”
Each member of the 21st EOD Company is also required to graduate from the Air Assault School on Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and the team members use the Basic Mountaineering Course to prepare them to operate in any environment.
The company is part of 242nd EOD Battalion, 71st EOD Group and 20th Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, Explosives (CBRNE) Command, the U.S. military's premier all hazards command.
From 19 bases in 16 states, Soldiers and U.S. Army civilians confront and defeat the world's most dangerous hazards in support of joint, interagency and allied operations.
The Blackjacks have a formal assessment and selection process that consists of a challenging physical and psychological screening.
The company holds assessments on Kirtland Air Force, New Mexico, where the company is headquartered, and Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, where the Naval Explosive Ordnance Disposal School is located.
The assessments usually alternate every quarter or so between the two locations and interested EOD techs or EOD school students are highly encouraged to assess. Soldiers are also encouraged to reach out to the company if they have any questions about the process.
A native of Mount Pleasant, Texas, Tretta has been in the Army for 13 years and he has been an EOD tech for nearly 12 years.
Tretta deployed twice as an Army EOD team leader to Afghanistan, once with 47th EOD Company and once with 704th EOD Company, both out of Fort Hood, Texas.
His most memorable mission happened in 2014 in western Nangahar Province, Afghanistan, across the Pakistan border from the Khyber Pass.
His EOD team conducted a post-blast analysis following the destruction of more than 30 tractor trailers in a souk yard adjacent to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Torkham after six insurgents snuck in wearing Army uniforms and carrying magnetically attached Improvised Explosive Devices (MAIEDs) and rocket propelled grenade (RPG) launchers.
“They simply slapped the timed MAIEDs into the truck fuels tanks and waited a few minutes,” said Tretta. “Once spotted and engaged by American troops and with no chance of escape, the insurgents detonated their suicide vests. Many of the MAIEDs didn’t function and had to be rendered safe by my team upon arrival on scene.”
His team disarmed the remaining Improvised Explosive Devices on the highly flammable trucks while contending with the aftermath of the explosions and the acrid stench of burning diesel, rubber and plastic.
After serving in two other Army EOD companies, Tretta said he welcomed the opportunity to continue his service as a member of the elite 21st EOD Company.
He joined the 21st EOD Company “Blackjacks” because he was drawn to the technical side of the company and liked being part of such a unique mission unit.
Tretta said the atmosphere of professionalism and scope and availability of training as well as the myriad of civilian opportunities after serving in the 21st EOD Company is why he chose to come to Kirtland Air Force Base and the 21st EOD Company.
“That decision has changed the trajectory of my life and I would make it again in an instant. The 21st is truly a remarkable unit and I am fortunate and honored to call it home,” said Tretta.
“It is a fact that the 21st EOD is the only unit of its kind in the United States, NATO and indeed the world,” said Tretta. “We receive top-tier training from true subject matter experts across the government and civilian sectors allowing us to bring our capabilities and expertise to bear should we need to execute our mission in extraordinarily high-consequence situations.”