By Andrea Sutherland, Fort CarsonOctober 18, 2012
CAMP GUERNSEY, Wyo. (Oct. 18, 2012) -- Sgt. Jason Due crept along the canyon wall, scanning the ground before taking each step. After working his way through a cluster of pine trees, he spotted the weapons cache -- 107-mm rockets piled high. Underneath, hidden from Due's view, was a landmine. He crept closer.
From his vantage point on the other side of the pine trees, Eric Stoneking evaluated Due's every move, scribbling notes in his field journal. Stoneking, a former Airman and contractor working in Iraq, was wounded in 2006 when an explosively formed penetrator detonated, severing tendons in his right arm, burning his face and sending shrapnel through his body. Now, he helps train Soldiers in similar situations so they might avoid his fate and those of others in the field.
"We're duplicating a scenario that killed three (explosive ordnance disposal technicians) in 2005 or 2006," he said.
Stoneking said that after discovering a weapons cache similar to the ones against the canyon wall, the three EOD techs attempted to remove the ordnance. Buried underneath was a bomb activated by a transmitter. When the EOD techs got close, the bomb detonated.
Kneeling over the ordnance, Due inspected the pile. When he spotted the green wire snaking its way from under the cache, he sat back, stood up and backed away.
"There's a wire," he said to Sgt. Marty Hile, a fellow Soldier in the 663rd Ordnance Company, 242nd EOD Battalion, 71st Ordnance Group (EOD).
Two other 663rd Ord. Soldiers -- Sgt. Brian Swink and Spc. Cody Wallace -- kept watch from the roadside.
Hile handed Due blocks of C-4 explosive and a roll of tape.
Walking the same path as when he first entered, Due returned to the cache, placing the C-4 on top of the pile and carefully taping the explosives to the weapons.
After moving his team to a safe point, Due simulated an explosion, successfully "destroying" the cache and keeping his team alive.
"Good," said Stoneking, recapping the four-man team's performance. "You didn't die."
In movies, EOD techs are portrayed as renegades, rebels with swagger and ego. In reality, they are methodical, precise and deliberate.
They analyze a situation -- sometimes spending hours on a single training exercise -- because they know the difference can mean their life or death.
"The good EOD techs are very cerebral," said Master Sgt. Jason Gerber, 242nd EOD, 71st EOD. "It's not just about what you're doing now; it's about what you're doing three steps from now."
Due and his team breathed a sigh of relief -- they were successful in their first training lane, but they had eight more to complete in the next 48 hours, not counting a possible nighttime training mission.
They'd already been training for 10 days as part of Operation Stockman II, an 18-day training event at Camp Guernsey, a joint training center in Wyoming.
Soldiers trained on weapons marksmanship, day and nighttime land navigation, military operations in urban terrain and convoy live fire.
"The areas of focus are basic EOD ordnance skills and range clearance operations, counter-improvised explosive device lanes, basic warfighting tasks and support operations," said Capt. Clay Kirkpatrick, commander, 663rd Ord. "During the operation we completed three days of range clearance operations, destroying 28 pieces of unexploded ordnance."
"Our goal was to throw everything at them," said 1st Sgt. Dave Grotkin, senior enlisted leader, 663rd Ord. "We wanted to get away from Fort Carson. (Camp Guernsey) takes us away from the 'real world' and allows us to focus on intense training."
In garrison, EOD Soldiers are often tasked with outside duties, including aiding civilian bomb squads and police departments and providing security to presidential candidates, Grotkin said.
"We're stretched thin between deployments and the homeland mission," he said, adding that the additional requirements often take Soldiers away from essential training.
For the men and women of the 663rd Ord., Camp Guernsey offered the perfect setting to train Oct. 1. The landscape mimicked deployed environments. The small installation, typically used by the Wyoming National Guard, offered some of the amenities of home including barracks, a dining facility and gym, but wasn't crowded with other units training. And the more than 77,000-acres of training ranges allowed commanders to coordinate elaborate EOD scenarios.
"This is the greatest secret in the Army -- Camp Guernsey," Grotkin said.
Although the training was intended to bring all Soldiers up to the unit standard, it served an additional purpose.
"Camp Guernsey (training) will be the test to see who gets cut," Grotkin said.
Grotkin has been in EOD units his entire Army career and he's seen the career field morph from less than 700 Soldiers to more than 2,500.
"We're no longer hidden on the side of post," he said. "Everybody needs EOD support."
After 9/11 and the beginning of operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, Grotkin said demand for EOD assets soared.
Units were assembled quickly, sometimes not allowing for adequate training.
Grotkin said he was part of a 36-person unit that deployed. They experienced five casualties, including one death.
In a career field that experiences one of the highest casualty rates of any military occupation, Grotkin said he believes training may help reduce those statistics.
"When (my previous unit) deployed, it was thrown together and suffered many casualties. I wasn't going to repeat that with this company," he said.
The Soldiers of the 663rd Ord. are preparing to deploy next year.
"We only want to take the best," Grotkin said.
The nearly three-week training was intense. Soldiers got little sleep and often subsisted on Meals Ready-to-Eat. But Soldiers found their own ways to have some fun.
In a field exercise that required EOD techs to investigate a vehicle laden with explosive material, the Soldiers concocted elaborate back-stories.
"(An animal rights organization) has funded a terrorist attack on a slaughterhouse," said Sgt. 1st Class David Sumrall, reading the scenario brief to Staff Sgt. Andrew Olson. "The hippie driver decided he didn't want to die (for the cause) and that he didn't care about the animals that much so he called the police and turned himself in."
Sumrall said the scenario the previous day was "mad midgets with guns attacking a judge's house."
In their off time, Soldiers bonded playing cards and other games. One Soldier gave another etiquette lessons, making sure she had her pinky finger raised as she sipped her coffee. Others swapped stories about their spouses and children.
"At the end of the day, I think we're some of the hardest working Soldiers," said Staff Sgt. Alexandra White. "This is a rewarding job. It's helped me. It's pushed me physically and mentally. You surprise yourself. This is what we love to do. We all feel the exact same way."