FORT RILEY, Kan. (Army News Service, April 25, 2008) -- An Explosive Ordnance Disposal team from the 734th EOD Company at Fort Bliss, Texas, took top honors April 18 in the first EOD Team of the Year Competition held since Sept. 11, 2001.

Team Leader Sgt. Martin Yake, Pfc. John Neely and Pfc. Joseph Czikalla made up the winning team of EOD Soldiers who competed against four other company teams in the 84th Ordnance Battalion's EOD Team of the Year Competition from April 14 to 18, 2008.

The competition, a grueling week-long noncommissioned-officer-designed and executed event, began in 1987 at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa., and developed quickly into an Army-wide competition in the 1990s. The newly activated 52nd Ordnance Group took control of the competition in 1993 and in the late 1990s the competition was formalized under Forces Command.

Due to the increased operations tempo brought on by the War on Terror and the importance of EOD Soldiers in the fight against improvised explosive devices, the competition was suspended after the attacks on Sept. 11.

"It's important to recognize the best of the best," said Lt. Col. Gerald Muhl, battalion commander of the 84th Ordnance Battalion. "They didn't stop the Best Ranger Competition after 9/11 because they knew how important it was for the community. It's the same for EOD Soldiers. My hope is that this will be the first step to reinstituting the Army-wide competitions we had prior to 9/11."

The competition tests the skills of three-person teams of Staff Sgt. or below EOD Soldiers in technical skills, tactical proficiency, physical fitness and weapons proficiency. This year's competition, held about an hour west of Fort Riley at the Smokey Hill Weapons Range in Salina, Kan., exercised many of the scenarios and pertinent lessons learned from recent EOD deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The competition has changed a lot since it was last held prior to 9/11," said 84th Ordnance Battalion Command Sgt. Maj. Bradley Simmons. "We have much more support and a lot more resources then we did back then and we've integrated many of the real-world scenarios our Soldiers have faced and will continue to face in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo and around the world."

Training for Reality

The competition was an event that exercised more than just the teams competing. The entire battalion was involved in one way or another through planning and executing the competition. Assistance was also provided by other units from the 84th's higher headquarters, the 71st and 52d Ordnance Group, and the 172d Chemical Company, all part of the 20th Support Command (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and High Yield Explosives).

"The competition really trains all of the battalion's core competencies. It's not just great training for the competitors; the evaluators are getting a lot out of it, the training lane 'problem setters' and the entire staff," said Simmons.

"By operating out here at a remote site we avoid the garrison distracters and exercise our entire staff's ability to plan and execute an operation involving logistics, communications, a medical evacuation plan and all the other staff functions that are essential to operating in a combat environment," he said.

"Problem setters" spent upwards of six months developing training lanes to not only test the skills of the EOD Soldiers but to train them for future service overseas.

"IEDs are the number-one killer of Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Maj. Steve Petersen, operations officer, 84th Ordnance Battalion.

Events such as performing "render safe" procedures on Large Vehicle and House Borne IEDs and chemical munitions, identifying and disposing of enemy weapons caches, and protecting personnel and property from explosive hazards are especially relevant in today's operational environment.

"Our competition committee took intelligence from actual events that EOD teams face during real world deployments and recreated them to test the ability of team members and create tough, realistic training that will assist in keeping these Soldiers alive the next time they face an actual live IED or unexploded ordnance item," said Petersen.

"It's the simple stuff that kills you," said Muhl. "The competition is designed to be rigorous. Attention to detail is critical and that's what we're training here. The Soldiers know they are being evaluated on every move and decision they make. Here they are doing it to win a competition, but this kind of attention to detail and repetition will save lives overseas. It will also help us identify our strengths and weaknesses and design future training to correct those weaknesses."

Best of the Best

Each of the teams competing was chosen by their respective companies for their tactical and technical competency or sometimes teams competed in smaller company competitions to earn the right to be in the battalion competition against the best of the best.

This year's winning team excelled in the Large Vehicle IED problem, but what gave them the winning edge, said Petersen, was their consistency.

"They stayed with or outperformed the other competitors by a just a few points in nearly every event," said Petersen.

A testament to the training each new EOD Soldiers receives in Army and joint schools is that each member of the winning team is fairly new to the EOD community, having graduated from EOD School within the last year. Their unit from Fort Bliss is scheduled for a deployment to Afghanistan before the year's end.

"If their performance during the EOD Team of the Year Competition is any indication as to their level of readiness, there is no doubt they are up to the task," said Petersen.

"This is a lot of fun," said Pfc. John Neely of the winning team. "I know it's training, but the competition is great and I'm learning a ton from interacting with other members of the EOD community. There are guys here with senior and master badges - just the opportunity to talk to these guys and learn from them makes it worthwhile, and the scenarios are so realistic I know they will help when we get overseas in a few months."

Sgt. 1st Class Rocco Covello, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the competition, competed in five previous competitions himself until they were cancelled after 2001.

"As a past competitor I know how important this training is to building our core competencies. It builds competitive spirit, gives team members a chance to excel and prove themselves, and of course the winning team will have bragging rights and the respect of the entire EOD community - until next year at least," said Covello.

Integrating New Technologies

The competition, which was partially sponsored by AT Solutions, also had representatives from Foster-Miller and iRobot on hand to offer technical support to the Soldiers using their robots, the Talon and PackBot.

"I knew it was important we [Foster-Miller] were here to support this valuable training and our products, ensure everything runs smoothly and aid the Soldier's understanding of the equipment they depend on," said Shawn Thayer, a Foster-Miller representative and retired EOD 1st Sgt. who was a member of the winning team in 1995.

For iRobot the competition was more than an opportunity to support the Soldiers; it was a chance to allow Soldiers the opportunity to test new technologies.

"We are here to support the warfighters and let the Soldiers try out some of our newest products. Their feedback will help determine how we design these robots in the future, such as the use of PlayStation like controllers and ensuring the interoperability of our equipment, including the use of SINCGARS batteries on our bots," said Gary Stair an iRobot representative and retired Army EOD Soldier.

The 84th Ordnance Battalion stood up as part of the 71st Ordnance Group and 20th Support Command (CBRNE) in June 2007. Muhl, who knows the importance of realistic training, hopes that by re-instituting the Team of the Year Competition he will ensure his Soldiers are the best trained in the Army.

"I knew this was something we had to do after talking to past competitors and winners - they all said this was by far and without a doubt the best training of their entire careers, and the most valuable for training the skills they needed to survive in combat," said Muhl.

(Maj. Joe Scrocca serves with the 20th Support Command, Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and High Yield Explosives Public Affairs Office)