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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Ordnance disposal makes for no ordinary day

11 April 2007
By Master Sgt. Bryan Ripple
332nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq (AFNEWS) -- Airmen assigned to the 332nd Civil Engineer Squadron's Explosive Ordnance Disposal Flight have a dangerous mission that keeps fellow coalition forces safe.

It takes nerves of steel and a steady hand to do the work these Airmen do. After all, getting anywhere near an improvised explosive isn't something most people want to do.

Airmen from the EOD flight put their extensive combat training and experience to the test every day in support Operation Iraqi Freedom. When they are not on a mission, they keep busy maintaining their equipment, vehicles and robots for their next time out, or they're destroying unexploded ordnance, or UXOs, from in-direct fire attacks or ridding munitions that have exceeded their shelf lives.

"This is my third deployment to Iraq since the start of the war in 2003. I'm amazed at how the battlefield is ever changing," said Master Sgt. Michael Pitts, deployed here from Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. "We get smarter, but so does the enemy. It's a crazy cat and mouse game. Sometimes we win, sometimes the enemy does. Thankfully, we win a lot more!"

The explosives Airmen have two distinct missions, one on base and one outside the wire. They are here on six-month deployments, which are more like eight months when you include their mandatory Combat Skills Training and the Global Anti-terrorism and Operational Readiness training that prepares them for 'outside the wire' work.

The EOD missions vary from day to day. One day the teams might respond to unexploded ordnance, or UXO, on base, or they may assess damage done to buildings and equipment after an indirect fire attack. On another day, they may go off base to perform their Army "in-lieu-of" mission. This can range from rendering IEDs safe that have shut down a convoy route, to conducting a post-blast analysis on coalition vehicles struck by IEDs.

The latter mission can be the most difficult to perform.

"We see ... the personnel who were injured or killed in these attacks. It's hard to focus on the task at hand seeing all the destruction, but we have to. The intelligence we gather from these incidents and others allows us to gain valuable intelligence on how the enemy operates," Sergeant Pitts said.

The equipment and vehicles EOD Airmen have used over the years have evolved to keep up with the ever-changing requirements of the tactical battle space. Armored vehicles have evolved from standard armored Humvees in early 2003, to the Joint EOD Rapid Response Vehicle being used today. The JERRV is a massive vehicle that allows EOD teams to safely travel to and from an incident site and allows them to vary operations in and around the vehicle during a call. Inside the armored EOD vehicle, there is room for the EOD team, their robots, and all the other gear needed to work outside the wire, including their 70-pound bomb suits. The JERRV also has multiple optical camera capabilities providing day and night vision, as well as forward looking infra-red technology that allows EOD Airmen better visibility of their surroundings.

Senior Airman Stephen Ohge is deployed from Anderson AFB, Guam, and operates the new joy stick controlled technology provided within the JERRV as easily as a young person playing a favorite video game.

"Cutting-edge technologies are paramount to today's EOD operations outside the wire," said Airman Ohge. "As new equipment emerges and is integrated into our career field, situational awareness and efficiency are intensified; this results in not only a more cognizant and rapid response, but also an immeasurable increase in our mission capabilities," he said.

"Since our initial employment of our optical systems, we have spotted multiple triggermen and aided our security in the capture and exploitation of these individuals. This is just one of the many benefits we have experienced thus far. These systems also assist our use of robots for remote reconnaissance and disruption of IEDs, directly relating to a decrease of time spent in a kill zone. We're very lucky to have such an amazing apparatus to perform our duties," he said.

Airman 1st Class Robert Wester is also deployed from Hickam AFB. Airman Wester exercises extreme care while operating the Talon Robot, one of three robots EOD uses to respond to IEDs.

"It's my job to disrupt and eliminate IED hazards in hostile situations. I use various robots, one being the Talon," Airman Wester said. "It's an excellent robot, and I would rate it as being the best one in theater. Using the Talon is like an extension of my own arms. There is no time for fumbling or room for error. Robot operators must work quickly and thoroughly without letting stress affect their performance," he said.

The EOD Airmen know that where there is an IED, there is most likely someone watching.

"A good friend of mine was shot by a sniper not long ago. A good robot driver will minimize all team member exposure to sniper fire and explosive hazards. Most hazards can be cleared with a robot, but sometimes there is a need to have eyes on to know the scene is cleared," Airman Wester said.

EOD Airmen are not immune to the dangers IEDs pose, however.

"It's a struggle to stay two steps ahead of the enemy. We learn from other people's experiences and survive based on our strict adherence to our tactics, techniques, and procedures. In this game, you only get one shot to get it right. This is evident by our EOD motto, 'Initial Success or Total Failure," Sergeant Pitts said.

Staff Sgt. Octavia Washington is deployed here from the 5th Logistics Readiness Squadron at Minot AFB, N.D., and works supply requests for the EOD flight helping ensure EOD Airmen have all the equipment they need to do their jobs.

"Every time we have a successful mission or another controlled detonation to keep the base safe, I know I had a hand in our success," she said. "It's imperative these guys have what they need, when they need it, to do their jobs."

EOD Airmen here feel they are making a positive difference in Iraq.

"When we roll down the street heading out to the next reported IED, and we see a young girl in an Iraqi village heading off to school with her book bag, I know we've changed her life for the better. She has an opportunity she would never have had if our military wasn't here helping Iraq combat this insurgency and establish its new democratic government," Sergeant Pitts said.

Throughout their missions outside the wire with Army units, EOD Airmen here have smoothly integrated with the Soldiers who provide cover for them while performing their EOD duties.

"EOD is a prime example of the joint brotherhood that develops in this area of operations," said Capt. Jay Ferguson, deployed here as the EOD flight commander from Hill AFB, Utah.

Sergeant Pitts agreed. "The soldiers put their lives on the line to protect us, he said. The uniform we wear doesn't matter when we're outside the wire; we're there to help each other."

Photo: Airmen with the 332nd Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron's Explosive Ordnance Disposal Flight conduct a controlled detonation March 20 at Balad Air Base, Iraq. The Balad EOD periodically disposes of unserviceable, excess, or dangerous ordnance by fabricating explosive demolition charges in a controlled environment. (U. S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth).

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