Initial success or total failure: EOD Airmen

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Adam R. Shanks
  • 6th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

Civil engineer Airmen can possess many different duty titles. From firefighters and pest management to surveyors and electricians, CE jobs require a “safety first” mentality.

For Explosive Ordnance Disposal, safety and proper training can be the difference between life and death.

They are one of the few “battlefield Airmen” jobs in the Air Force and are tasked with the identification and removal of explosive devices at home station and abroad.

“We spend most of our time conducting exercises, and ensuring all our gear is ready in preparation for possible deployments,” said Master Sgt. Brad Manco, the section chief of EOD resources assigned to the 6th Civil Engineer Squadron. “It’s paramount that every aspect of our job is engrained into our heads so when it’s a real world situation, it all comes naturally.”

The vital training starts after Basic Military Training when Explosive Ordnance Disposal candidates go to a preliminary course at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas.

After the preliminary course, EOD students move to the Naval School Explosive Ordnance Disposal at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. Here, they spend around eight months filled with rigorous classes and hands-on training.

“It’s a very challenging course,” said Senior Airman Alexander Thibodeaux, an EOD team member assigned to the 6th CES. “After class, we would go out and apply what we learned, then immediately test on the material.”

The students learn how to disarm and identify ordnance, and utilize tools for various scenarios.

 “Normally, when we identify the ordnance, we can search its specifications and dimensions in our database to pinpoint exactly what type of explosive it is,” said Manco. “We’ll be able to see a cross-section of the ordnance, which allows us to see where the vital parts are within the object.

“Our priority is to neutralize and disarm the device, without harming ourselves or others.”

Disarming the ordnance can happen various ways. In some cases, a tool punctures the ordnance and destroys the firing pin within it. This is useful for insensitive devices.

“Insensitive means the ordnance cannot be triggered easily,” said Thibodeaux. “In these scenarios, we can disarm it with the Mk2 tool and destroy the part that would trigger the explosive material.”

On the other hand, some ordnance are sensitive and cannot be moved or touched.

One example of this occurred in July 2015 on a beach in St. Petersburg, Florida. The EOD team from MacDill Air Force Base received a call that military ordnance was found washed up on shore. The bomb was identified as an M122 photoflash bomb from World War II.

“Since it was encrusted from being in the ocean for so long, we didn’t have many options to disarm it,” said Manco. “So, we created a wall of sand protecting the public, and dug a trench from the bomb towards the water.”

Digging the trench allowed most of the blast to focus in a safe, controlled direction. The team used C4 plastic explosives to detonate the bomb from a safe distance.

“We get calls like the St. Pete beach incident from time to time,” said Thibodeaux. “People sometimes find old military ordnance on accident and it’s our responsibility to safely dispose of it.”

For the most part, EOD technicians’ first line of defense is distance. Using remotely controlled robots such as the Remotec Andros F6 hazardous duty unmanned vehicle, EOD Airmen can perform reconnaissance on suspected ordnance at a safe distance.

However, some situations call for an immediate response, and that’s when it becomes dangerous.

“Finding unexploded ordnance on the beach is considered a ‘Category B’ situation, meaning we have time to plan how we’re going to dispose of the ordnance because there’s no immediate threat present,” said Thibodeaux. “However, ‘Category A’ poses a direct, grave threat to people and becomes our top priority.”

An example of Category A could be finding an IED strapped to a person in a crowd of people. In this scenario, the EOD technician has little to no time to prepare and must act quickly.

“We have to embody ‘service before self’ and disarm the explosive at any cost,” said Thibodeaux. “Even if it means sacrificing our lives for the safety of many others.”

With a motto like “Initial success, or total failure,” EOD technicians are charged with ensuring the safety of service members from explosive and other hazardous ordnances, with a tactful intellect and nerves of steel.

“I always hear people wonder, ‘Who would want to do that?’ and I ask myself the same thing sometimes,” said Thibodeaux. “But it’s knowing that my actions result in the safety of so many other service members and I enjoy that the most.”