By Marisa Petrich, Northwest GuardianDecember 20, 2011
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. (Dec. 20, 2011) -- A Soldier in a bomb suit walked slowly toward a smoking vehicle on Joint Base Lewis-McChord. A rope trailed behind him and two other Soldiers kept pace at his side.
"It's pretty quiet in that bomb suit when you're walking by yourself," said Maj. Matt Kuhns, 3rd Explosive Ordnance Battalion, as he watched from a safe distance.
Fortunately, the Soldier was not going to disarm a live bomb. Instead he was being tested as part of the 3rd Explosive Ordnance Disposal Battalion's Team Leader Training Academy that began Dec. 5. Two groups of 12 candidates will take part in a 10-day exercise on JBLM to prepare them for certification -- and for a job that is never really done.
"The goal of this is to increase the overall capability for our young team leaders," Kuhns said.
The candidates came from units all over the country for the quarterly training that required them to complete many of the tasks required for their team leader certification. Frequently working with live explosives, they worked to disarm bombs in three real-world scenarios: within the Continental U.S., Afghanistan and the hypothetical setting of Libya.
"It was relevant. It was fresh. You can visualize yourself being there. Now you have their interest, and I think that's critical as well," Lt. Col. Frank Davis, commander of the 3rd EOD Battalion, said of the settings.
Keeping the situations relevant couldn't have been much of a challenge. The use of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, has largely defined the last 10 years of war and claimed countless lives. Davis had two Soldiers injured downrange in the two weeks before the training began.
The situation has also nearly doubled Davis's ranks. With the increased number of technicians and the increased intensity of their job, young Soldiers advance faster than ever before, but the level of training they need hasn't changed.
"It takes time to build a team leader," Davis said.
Finding this time is difficult, even in garrison. When these Soldiers have returned from war, their work continues.
"Our mission doesn't stop even when we're back in the states," said Capt. Bryan Sand, who came from Fort Irwin, Calif., to help train the candidates.
EOD units frequently work alongside civilian law enforcement agencies to disarm explosives. For instance, the car bomb scenario was based on the attempted bombing this spring in New York City's Times Square.
It's a profession that gives techs little time to rest and the training exercise was no exception. A long list of practical tests was bundled into only a few days and all required the candidates to think creatively as they solved the problems in front of them.
"It's not lock step. Its not like start at A and go to C. That's one of the biggest challenges of the EOD MOS (military occupational specialty)," Kuhns said.
For Staff Sgt. Joseph Nelson, with the 49th EOD Company from Fort Campbell, Ky., that's the best part of the job. After four-and-a-half years of being an EOD tech, he loves having the chance to think outside the box.
Now as he prepares for his team leader certification, he said the training was not only helpful, but accurate. Many of the scenarios were almost exact replicas of what he'd seen downrange.
"They're teaching us all different tips and tricks to accomplish the mission," he said.
They're tips and tricks Nelson will need, and in all likelihood, soon.
"We often refer to this generation of EOD techs as the greatest generation," Davis said, reflecting on the breakneck pace and high-stress environment.
Nelson's up for the challenge.
"I love this job," he said.