By Sgt. Angela ParadyOctober 16, 2012
CAMP BONDSTEEL, Kosovo (Oct. 16, 2012) -- Driving across Kosovo's mountainous terrain hauling a trailer chock full of unexploded munitions would undoubtedly make most people a little nervous, but for this driver, today was just another day on the road.
Of all the dangers Soldiers face in Kosovo, unexploded ordnance is the most hazardous. Identifying unexploded ordnance items, or UXOs, locating them, and properly disposing of them is crucial to the safety and security of everyone living in Kosovo.
Soldiers from the 217th Explosives Ordnance Disposal Company, California Army National Guard, respond to, evaluate, and dispose of explosives in Kosovo, one of the most heavily mined regions in the world.
"It's very important because these hazards affect not only our military, but also the civilian population," said Sgt. 1st Class Robert W. Lee. "It's very important that we keep this area safe for the civilians, as well as the military operating in the area."
A team leader with the 217th EOD Company, Lee and his team are deployed with the 16th rotation of the Kosovo Force, for the NATO peace-keeping mission here. Since arriving in September, the 217th has responded to more than 40 calls for suspected UXOs.
"With a UXO, the most dangerous aspect is always the unknown," said Lee. The difference between a UXO and a bottle cap are huge, but when the report comes in for a suspected explosive, every case must be handled as a worst-case scenario.
Sgt. Valeriy P. Didychenko is an EOD technician with the 217th. Dealing with false alarms on a daily basis can make it easy to want to start letting safety precautions slide. However, they never know what they will find at a call, so each must be handled with the same concern and attention to detail.
"We must always prepare for worst-case scenario," said Didychenko, who chose the explosives field a year and a half ago. "Always be ready. We never get perfect information because people never know what they are looking at. So we have to be prepared for anything."
"It is an exciting job," he said. "It is never the same. There is always something unique. The danger is always out there, the adrenaline is always pumping. You know you have a pulse."
In Kosovo, a large issue is outdated munitions. According to Lee, munitions expire.
"They don't expire like the milk in your fridge, or the chow hall," he said.
He compared them to a Meal Ready to Eat.
"Munitions are sort of like MREs. Everything has a shelf life, and over time, need to be inspected," he said. "They have moving parts, there are lubricants for fuses, and over time the chemical composition will break down. They are very similar to MREs. They should be inspected before use and stored properly. Some will degrade faster, which is why they have to be inspected. If they fail their inspection, they are coded H and sent for demilitarization or destroyed by detonation."
In Kosovo, it is often more cost-effective to destroy munitions in a safe manner, rather than ship them back to the U.S. to go through the demilitarization process, where they are broken down, taken apart and the reusable parts recycled for future use, Lee said.
It is important to deal with munitions properly.
"We don't want to store them if they are near a certain expiration date," said Lee. "It is safer to destroy the munition rather than leave it laying around for someone else to find. We don't want someone just throwing it in a garbage disposal either. It just doesn't work that way."
Any time an EOD team is working around explosives, whether it is in a controlled training environment or during a call to the field, all steps are taken to make sure that safety is the first and primary concern.
Didychenko, a native of Helendale, Calif., said safety is always first priority, because peoples' lives are on the line.
"There are a lot of danger precautions," he said. "You are talking above and beyond the normal Soldier safety precautions. You need to make sure there is no one else out on the range. You want to make sure you know how big the blast will be, what the radius is for shot fragmentation, the blast radius. You need to set up security for the area, the damage the blast can cause; all those things need to be taken into consideration."
Lee agreed. An EOD technician must handle every situation as a worst-case scenario. All steps must be taken to mitigate safety, he said.
EOD technicians work hard to respond to all calls to sustain the safe and secure environment in Kosovo. If someone finds suspected munitions, the best thing to do is contact the Kosovo Police if outside of Camp Bondsteel, or the 217th EOD if within the gates.
"It is just not safe to handle munitions unless you have been properly trained," said Lee, who lives in Sacramento, Calif. "You don't know what state it is in, whether it was fired, but then misfired, or if someone was trying to get rid of it, and just placed it there. Leave it to us."
"The most crucial information we need, is the location," he said. "That is the most important part, as specific as you can, because if you say it is in a field, we don't know what that means, we have to search the whole field. So the location is very important, and a description if you have one. What does it look like? Does it look like a bottle or does it look like something else? If they can tell us what it looks like, that helps put us in the ballpark of what we might be dealing with. We don't need or want anyone climbing on top of it to get the exact measurements, just a general, generic description. It's this big, it's this high, it's this shape. Don't touch it. Call us."