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Truax EOD continues to increase capability, train for ordnance disposal

Operating a Remotec F-6A Andros Hazardous Duty Robot, Staff Sgt. Nicholas Stehling shows off a recently acquired piece of equipment designed to assist explosive ordnance disposal personnel get the job done safely. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Paul Gorman)

Operating a Remotec F-6A Andros Hazardous Duty Robot, Staff Sgt. Nicholas Stehling shows off a recently acquired piece of equipment designed to assist explosive ordnance disposal personnel get the job done safely. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Paul Gorman)

Staff Sgt. Nicholas Stehling, 115th Explosive Ordnance Disposal flight, demonstrates how to properly use a mini-mine detector at the EOD training room Feb. 07. The mini-mine detector is just one of the new pieces of equipment the EOD flight has recieved since 2005 when EOD was created at Truax Field. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Paul Gorman)

Staff Sgt. Nicholas Stehling, 115th Explosive Ordnance Disposal flight, demonstrates how to properly use a mini-mine detector at the EOD training room Feb. 07. The mini-mine detector is just one of the new pieces of equipment the EOD flight has recieved since 2005 when EOD was created at Truax Field. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Paul Gorman)

MADISON, Wis. -- Details. Details are their life. Or, better yet, life or death. 

For the Airman of the 115th Fighter Wing Explosive Ordnance Disposal flight, intricate details describe every decision, every step, every move. There is not always a manual, there is hardly ever enough time and the job is never routine, but EOD members are expected to act safely and decisively at every call. 

The 115 FW EOD flight is relatively new to Truax Field. Whereas most units have been here more than 50 years, the EOD flight has been here less than five. They originated in 2005 and have built themselves up to a fully operational, fully trained and capable unit under the 115th Civil Engineer Squadron. 

Senior Master Sgt. Edward Smith, 115 EOD superintendent, was the second original flight member and simplifies EOD's mission as "defeating any device or preventing any ordnance from functioning as designed." Although this description sounds fairly simple, the amount of education, training and experience to accomplish those tasks are not. 

The technical school for EOD is longer than most Airmen go through for Basic Military Training and technical school combined. At more than eight months, the school is one of the longest for today's Airmen. The school is not only long, it's difficult as well. The washout rate for Airmen going through the joint-force school, located at Eglin AFB, Fla., is around 60 percent, largely in part to the minimum passing score of 85 percent. 

After graduating from the Basic EOD and Air Force specific courses, EOD Airmen have the sole responsibility to continually train until they are ready and needed for deployment. 

There are many different tools, ordinances and situations to train for which makes it difficult for more than half of their flight members who are traditional guardsmen. Time constraints and maintaining proficiency are the biggest challenges the team is faced with, because for each day that passes without training, an EOD tech's proficiency goes down, said Tech. Sgt. Gilbert Holcomb. 

"That's one of the hardest parts for the guard personnel in our career field ... the more time you're off, the more your proficiency drops," Sergeant Holcomb said. "Training is continuous, like setting up equipment, without training they may be able to still do it, but it takes too much time." 

Time is not typically a luxury an EOD Airman has. That is why when they are deployed, there are always EOD members working or on standby. It is also the reason that Sergeant Smith has taken what time they do have for training very seriously, because, in his eyes, their profession is a constantly changing field. 

"With the wealth and knowledge on the internet out there, it's very easy for common people who may have a grudge on the government or the U.S. to make a bomb," said Sergeant Smith. "They build them a certain way and we find a way to counteract that and then they start changing them again, it's just the wealth of information that's out there." 

In addition to training with equipment at the shop, Lt. Cols. Bryan Anders and Kevin Philpot, back-to-back 115 CE Commanders, have worked diligently to get vital training time at Volk Field and Harwood Gunnery Range where they can put their office training into practical use. They make the trip at least four times each year which helps to ready the Airmen for a deployed environment. 

"I think we have a better program here than a lot of other bases. We've really improved our training and I can't see how anyone would be any better," Sergeant Smith said. 

He thinks his unit could train anyone to deploy, whether active duty or reserve, which is evident by the quality of the Airmen in his shop. 

"They are all very dependable guys ... they are very enthusiastic, reliable, intelligent and they adhere to the EOD team concept," the senior said. 

Aside from trips for training and deployment cycles, EOD Airmen are also sometimes tasked by a subsidiary of the Secret Service to provide presidential and foreign dignitary support. Regardless of the mission, all EOD Airmen are trained for one reason - to recognize, identify and mitigate explosive hazards. The training that has taken place over the last few years has done that. 

"We train to become safe operators. When we are actually doing our job, you don't at all think about the dangers, you're just conscious of them but it's not your main focus" Sergeant Smith said. "Your main focus is to save lives and save property." 

Acquiring new equipment, personnel 

An old cliché states you have to have the "right tools for the job." Acquiring tools for a brand new flight hasn't exactly been easy, especially when those tools are designed for "recognizing, identifying and mitigating" munitions and Improvised Explosive Devices. The startup costs for a new EOD flight can be pretty overwhelming to a base. 

"I think the biggest challenge is educating a unit that has never had EOD before," said Sergeant Smith. "People have been here at Truax for decades and it's not their fault, but they don't understand what EOD does or what's required financially." 

Sergeant Smith isn't complaining. He hasn't a desire to split hairs. But, to put it into context, the standard uniform just to get close to an ordnance or IED is a bomb suit. The bomb suits typically run between $40,000 to $50,000 each. If they decide to send in one of their two robots, that adds a price tag of easily more than $250,000. 

"This unit has been built from the ground up," said Sergeant Holcomb. "There was nothing before it, so if we didn't have this equipment now, we'd have to go somewhere to get the training and become proficient." 

The equipment they have has come from many different sources including depot, unit funds, Guard Bureau, the Air Force Civil Engineering Support Agency and some equipment are "hand-me-downs" from other bases like Scott AFB, Ill. 

The equipment they've received since 2005 makes their job safer and in some cases possible. But, even with all their new equipment, they welcome more. Every situation is different and the more equipment they have, the more options they have to mitigate the hazard, said Sergeant Smith. 

Improvised Explosive Devices are only limited to the imagination of the builder. That is why the EOD Airmen continue to look for new equipment. They've just recently acquired a M-107 Berretta .50 caliber rifle, two portable mine detectors, a hook-n-line kit, the latest bomb suit and a new robot. The general consensus in the flight is that these tools potentially make their job easier, safer and less complex. 

Sergeant Smith has interviewed some of the current EOD members. As a 17 year veteran of the career field, he looks for a few things before bringing an Airman onto the job. Applicants must be reliable, stable, have confidence and be able to obtain a top secret clearance. But also, be squared away in their personal life as well. 

"I ask them if their family knows what they've chosen to do and I make sure they have a willingness to travel and be away from their families," Sergeant Smith said. 

Although he can't put his finger on it, the senior said there is a commonality in most EOD members and applicants: 

"There is something about Emergency Responders that just makes them want to be a part of it and makes them want to help." he said. "It is commendable and I just don't think there's a description for that kind of quality." 

Despite the flight's existence of less than five years, they have stayed busy. One of their members is currently in Nevada, augmenting an active duty unit, two just returned from Puerto Rico and more are scheduled to deploy later this year. In addition to the temporary duty assignments, the 115 EOD flight has responded to five real-world events since 2008. All of these help contribute to the experience and proficiency level of the critical Airmen. 

"We don't produce anything, we don't fill work orders and we don't answer phones, so it's difficult for people to see the value in an EOD shop, but the majority of American casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan have been from improvised devices, so if you can eliminate those you can eliminate a lot of the injuries and deaths," Sergeant Smith said. 

Eliminating casualties is one detail that cannot be overlooked, no matter the risk. For the Airmen of the 115th EOD flight, they are trained, ready and willing to take that risk, one ordnance at a time.
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