For some, the most difficult part is dealing with an increased workload. But for a select few, daily concerns include encountering direct enemy fire from machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, or disarming 2,000 pounds or more of homemade explosives.
Explosives and improvised explosive devices are the main threat to U.S. forces in the region, and explosive ordnance disposal Airmen have been thrust into a central role to combat the deadly threat.
“EOD is tasked to render safe and dispose of any explosive hazards, to include conventional weapons; nuclear, biological and chemical weapons; IEDs; and aircraft explosive hazards,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. Edmund Spivak, 49th Civil Engineer Squadron EOD flight commander. “Our deployed mission is mainly focused on eliminating IEDs, conducting post-blast analysis, and providing technical data to attack the insurgent network.”
Because they have such a daunting skill set to master, their training is on-going, said U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Brook Hamilton, 49th CES EOD journeyman.
“Basically we’re explosives experts, so we have to know how to safely disarm any bombs we come across,” he said. “Because of our mission, we have to really be familiar with the characteristics of munitions we could encounter in other countries. We also must have extensive knowledge of electronics, survival skills, and combat infantry skills, and have the ability to work with and deal with people from other countries.”
Often, multiple skills in their repertoire are tested in a single mission.
“When I was in Afghanistan, I was working with the Army 1st Infantry Division out of Forward Operating Base Andar, and we were tasked to assist at one of the village’s key leader meetings,” Hamilton said. “They flew us there in Chinooks and when we got there, the terrain was miserable. All of us were soaking wet and muddy, and on top of that, the people there seemed pretty uncomfortable.”
“At the meeting, all of the villagers were yelling the whole time, so I could tell something was going on,” Hamilton said. “We finished the meeting but everybody was pretty uneasy. As we’re leaving, we’re waiting for a helicopter in a field not too far away and we start hearing some pop shots. They were shooting at us with rifles, and it breaks out into full machine guns and RPGs. It was over quickly. It was only a couple of minutes, but it was incredibly exciting to utilize the other training I had received.”
EOD Airmen often have to integrate with the other U.S. military service branches, but sometimes they are embedded with foreign militaries, as Spivak was from September 2010 to April 2011.
“I worked with Polish Battle Group Rotation 8 and took on additional duties of being the advisor for the Polish Battle Group one-star (general),” Spivak said. “I provided an intricate knowledge of the insurgent networks and their tactics, techniques and procedures. During my time there, I met with the Polish prime minister and their ground forces component commander and advised them on the necessary changes to their rules of engagement, in order to be more successful in Afghanistan. All of my advisement was executed and new rules of engagement were published in February 2011.”
The training he provided the Polish military proved to be very valuable, Spivak said.
“As a trainer and the head of the (counter-IED) working group, I trained the Polish infantry on identifying IEDs and what they should when they find them,” he said. “The techniques they were using prior to my arrival were extremely dangerous and caused multiple deaths and injuries. All of the training, for the staff and troops, caused a major change in the way that the Polish military operated as a whole. Their number of soldiers (killed in action) dropped from six in the first two weeks to only two in the remaining five months. ”
As a result of the services he provided, he was presented the Polish Army Silver Medal, which is about equivalent to the U.S. military’s Bronze Star, and the Polish Battle Group 8th Rotation command Staff Medal — both authorized and signed by the president of Poland and the Polish defense minister.
Although rewarding, EOD Airmen’s jobs can be very difficult, Spivak said.
“Our EOD troops have been in both Iraq and Afghanistan since the beginning of both operations, and continue to put themselves in harm’s way to protect the lives and property of others,” he said. “EOD is one of the most difficult jobs in the military, because we have to be ready for anything. There is never enough training since the threat is always training, and there are thousands of different ordnance to study and learn.”
Learning and protecting others are just two of the reasons why Hamilton loves his job, he said.
“That’s something that not everyone is willing to do, because it can be life-threatening if not treated in a safe way,” he said. “We’re there to keep people safe. Since I joined the Air Force, it’s been an incredible journey and it’s definitely something that I look back on and I’m proud that I made that decision. I really enjoy what I do.”