At bomb disposal school, war is far, but stress is right in front of them
EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- The sprawling outdoor range where US military bomb technicians learn their craft is oddly quiet.
Students don't practice defusing bombs with helicopters hovering, civilians screaming, or snipers taking aim -- that will come later when they are working on live bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Battle-hardened instructors at the Kauffman Explosives Ordnance Disposal Training Complex can teach techniques, but they cannot teach the calm that comes from experience.
"This isn't Heartbreak Ridge," said Army Sergeant Ted Cheairs, an instructor, referring to a 1986 Clint Eastwood film about Marine training. "I cannot take an AK-47 and shoot at them while they are working, but if you ask any one of those students right now what their stress level is while they are working out here -- on a scale of 1 to 10, they'd tell you at least a 7."
The Navy-operated school at Eglin Air Force Base trains soldiers, sailors, and airmen for one of the military's most high-demand jobs -- defusing deadly improvised explosive devices and other bombs. The stakes are high -- 2006 was the deadliest year for US military bomb technicians since World War II and IEDs are the No. 1 killer of US troops in Iraq.
The Navy says about 1,000 US students and 150 foreign students graduate from the eight-month school annually, about 31 percent of those who enter.
Instructors say the Marines, Army Rangers, Navy divers, and others who attend often lack the right combination of book smarts, technical savvy, and calm under pressure.
At the outdoor range where groups of students practice under camouflaged netting, Army Sergeant Baylin Oswalt, 31, watches as a student tries to disarm a dummy rocket. The responsibility of the job forces young soldiers, most under 25 years old, to grow up fast, he said.
"These are not your typical young kids. These students, they mature as much here in three or four months as someone their age normally would in three or four years," said Oswalt, who has served as an explosives ordnance disposal technician in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He will be deployed again this fall.
Students are reminded daily how deadly the job is -- a memorial wall stands across from the school's entrance, listing all US military bomb technicians killed in combat. In 2006, 15 died -- the deadliest year for bomb techs since 1945. Four more have died this year.
Oswalt taught one of those killed last year and served in combat with another. "This school is about the rudimentary skills," he said. "We know that when you are in combat, you never know what could go wrong."