After scanning the doorway ahead, the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) tech dropped to his knees and brought his attention to the loose brown soil in front of him now blurred by out-of-focus night vision goggles. A quick adjustment to the PVS-15s brought the details of the foreground back into a crisp resolution, the pitch dark of the night illuminated in a green hue.
“Hurry up EOD,” whispered a Special Forces sergeant standing just off to the side, his infrared laser trained on the doorway.
No time for a metal detector, the EOD team leader, a 30-year-old staff sergeant from Killeen, Texas, ran his gloved hands through the surface layer of dirt, searching for IEDs. With each sweep forward dropping an infrared chem light behind him, marking the clear path.
He swept one meter, then another scooting forward as he swept away the soil, each movement bringing him closer to the breach.
The steps leading to the doorway were only a few feet away when the glide of his fingers was stopped by an object buried just inches beneath the surface of the loosely packed earth. Gingerly, he cleared the dirt away from the corner of what now was clear to him, a rectangular pressure switch leading to an improvised explosive device (IED), weatherproofed with tape and plastic.
Placing a red chem light near the IED, this one partially wrapped with electrical tape to reduce its brightness to just visible enough to be seen under night vision, he slowly backed away off the soil and towards the relative safety of the paved road in front of the target building.
“Bad breach, we’ll have to go around,” he whispered to his teammates, after noticing another door on the side of the target building. “Stay back behind me, I’ll clear us in.”
Time was running out. The squad had been exposed outside the building for almost three minutes. The team leader quickly scanned his approach and led the group off-route by a less direct, but potentially safer path to the structure.
Switching on the IR light affixed to his helmet, he took his first step from the safety of the pavement onto the dirt separating the team from their new potential entrance.
While only a 12-foot distance, this stretch was a vast unknown where any small patch of earth could be concealing a deadly trap. With each step, he dropped a Q-tip soaked in luminescent liquid to his rear while periodically crouching over to hastily inspect areas of soil that looked potentially disturbed by guerillas whose cunning in burying devices below ground is just as deadly as their skill with a rifle. Any inconsistency in the layer of topsoil could be telling of another pressure plate lying in wait for its victim.
Approaching the cinder block wall, the beam from his IR headlamp cut through the darkness as he scanned high and low. After clearing the wall and the concrete pad beyond, he climbed over and signaled for the team to follow.
The team followed in the trail of Q-tips and quickly rallied on the other side of the wall, weapons trained on doors and windows, vigilant but enjoying a moment of relief on the concrete after passing through the potentially IED laden soil where any misstep could prove deadly. The EOD team leader made his way to the side entrance, clearing what he could of the doorway.
The team then entered and cleared the first floor finding it empty.
Re-assembling in front of a dark staircase, the soldiers prepared to move to the second floor. One of the Green Beret’s led the stack up. The sounds of boots scraping against the dust-covered steps and crickets echoing across the night air were the only audible tones that could be heard as the team made its way up the staircase in almost total silence. The bomb tech followed close behind the lead man.
After reaching the second set of stairs, a voice cut through the silence. “Freeze!”
The stack halted abruptly, reacting to the EOD tech’s call. He shined his IR light on a small piece of electrical tape on the left wall of the stairwell that was barely visible in the shadows. The tape anchored a line of string across the open door frame at the end of the staircase leading to the second-floor balcony.
“Tripwire,” whispered the EOD tech, as he reached for a pair of medical shears on his plate carrier.
Peering under the line and around the corner to see its opposite end, he saw the booby trap that had been set. A water bottle filled with explosives primed with a homemade initiator, the setup rigged to detonate when the wire was pulled. After quickly inspecting the device he reached up, using his shears to cut the tripline.
With the hazard safe enough for now, the bomb tech led the group past the IED and onto the second floor. After finding two IEDs already, things had to move at a slower, more deliberate pace. The bomb tech swapped with the lead man and took point, leading the rest of the team into each room making sure the way was clear of any additional booby traps.
Second floor clear.
The enemy had abandoned this building but had made sure to leave some surprises in their wake, planting bombs to protect their assets left behind. In one of the side rooms, the team found what appeared to be a homemade explosives lab, with beakers, vials, and digital scales set up on several folding tables.
With the building clear, the team switched on red-lensed flashlights to conduct a hasty examination of the materials, but with the threat level from booby traps already high, this was easier said than done. Any one of the many objects in the room could contain a booby trap or anti-tamper device rigged to detonate when disturbed.
After clearing the room for booby traps, a voice cut through the darkness: “Ok we’ll endex here.”
Everyone lifted their NVGs and white lights came on. The training problem was complete.
While the SF team was composed of other bomb techs acting as role players and the IEDs were not rigged to explosives, but to loud buzzers simulating a detonation, the training was as real as it gets for the 752nd EOD Company out of Fort Hood, Texas.
This scenario was one of many the bomb technicians would have to navigate during their two weeks working with the 71st EOD Group Special Operations Support Training Team and from here the missions would only become more intense and complex.
How EOD meshes with special operations forces
Special Operations Forces (SOF) now shoulder much of the responsibility for U.S. combat missions overseas. Twelve-man teams of Green Berets, known as Operational Detachment Alphas, or ODAs, have been at the frontline of these missions for quite some time along with the 75th Ranger Regiment and special ops units from other military branches.
As a result, EOD technicians have been busy. As the military’s explosive experts, EOD soldiers have been integrating more frequently with ODAs; clearing roads and walking paths, destroying enemy munitions, and rendering safe booby traps, landmines and improvised explosive devices, oftentimes under the cover of darkness. The exceptionally dangerous nature of these missions was highlighted in 2019 when the EOD community mourned the deaths of Sgts. Joseph Collette and James Johnston, both of whom were killed in Afghanistan while deployed as members of a highly decorated special operations task force. Three additional members of the task force, Sgt. 1st Class Will Lindsay, Master Sgt. Micheal Riley, and Sgt. 1st Class Elliott Robbins, all Green Berets, also died that year during the unit’s six-month deployment.
To better prepare EOD soldiers for the unique hazards of such deployments, seasoned team leaders and senior non-commissioned officers within the 71st Ordnance Group have designed a new and highly specialized SOF Support Training (SST) program that brings lessons learned in combat directly to soldiers preparing to deploy.
Over the past year, EOD technicians with experience working with special operations forces have been gathered and selected specifically to serve in a cadre of instructors for this initiative. As new instructors join the cadre, they bring their unique experiences and tactical preferences with them, resulting in students being exposed to a wide variety of different techniques and procedures they can learn from. Each lesson is potentially life-saving.
‘It’s one of the best programs I’ve seen’
For many years, formalized training for EOD techs serving in special operations was hard to come by in the Army. So EOD teams sometimes had to learn techniques specific to special operations either while already overseas or during what’s called Pre-Mission Training (PMT), when ODAs and their combat enablers train together just prior to deployment.
But combat enablers like EOD techs are expected to arrive at PMT already well-versed in the unique tactical proficiencies required for the SOF mission. Yet some EOD techs found themselves having to learn on the fly without formalized training in a job where second chances are scarce, and too little too late can be extremely dangerous.
Indeed, an investigative report published by the New York Times in 2019 found that SOF enablers like bomb techs and conventional infantrymen were fighting next to elite commandos but “without the same training and gear.” But soon after, the 71st and 52nd EOD groups designated funding to implement a baseline SOF support training program for conventional EOD companies. Specialized units, like Fort Bragg’s 28th EOD Company which supports the 75th Ranger Regiment, have maintained their own assessment and selection programs in which integral training pipelines were already implemented for their personnel. The Times reported though, that even the 28th EOD had encountered difficulties acquiring equipment and other assets in the past.
“It can’t be overstated, we get sensitive, in the past, we have gotten things wrong, but other reporters who didn’t know us painted a picture that we didn’t care or didn’t invest in training,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Dave Silva. “Nothing is more important to us from the Chief of Staff to the Staff Sergeant, everyone is invested, they would give their own life for their soldiers.”
The creation of the SOF Support Training Team is widely considered among bomb disposal soldiers to be an instrumental step in the right direction for the Army EOD community. As one senior Army leader put it: “It’s one of the best programs I’ve seen in my 17 years in EOD.”
Doing more with less, faster
“We put the teams through crawl, walk, run phases,” explained Sgt. 1st Class Jared Miller, the non-commissioned officer in charge of the program. “We don’t want to just throw them into something they can’t handle right away but we still want to make sure they’re challenged by the end of the two-weeks.”
Though the two-week program is not a replacement for PMT or other pre-deployment exercises, soldiers going through the training learn the baseline skills they need to address shortcomings and capitalize on strengths in future SOF-centric training.
Week one consists of walkthroughs and hands-on training for individual tasks teams could encounter while on SOF support missions, including IED search and marking techniques, sensitive site exploitation, clearing helicopter landing zones, and procedures for hasty weapons cache demolition. Week two, meanwhile, pushes students out of their comfort zone with scenario-based exercises.
Special operations missions often require bomb techs to work faster and with less equipment. Unlike conventional deployments where EOD teams often operate out of large armored trucks with ample space made for explosives, tools and advanced robotics systems, SOF missions can require arduous dismounted maneuvers across complex terrain, infiltration by helicopter or movement using smaller, more maneuverable vehicles such as the M-ATV. Under these conditions, use of the protective bomb suit iconic to the EOD profession, designed to protect the wearer from blast and fragmentation injuries, is also non-starter. While support of conventional maneuver elements does require dismounted operations on the part of EOD technicians, when working with ODAs, working with limited equipment is the norm. This makes the job of bomb technicians inherently more dangerous, as what would preferably be carried out from a safe distance using a robot, often needs to be done close-up, sometimes even by hand.
With long-distance movements on foot being commonplace on SOF missions the classic Army adage “ounces equal pounds, pounds equal pain,” is taken quite literally. Anything non-essential is left behind. Because of this, bomb techs need to know how to maximize the effects of the often-limited amounts of gear they carry such as explosives, which are used to dispose of IEDs or captured enemy material and weapons. During the SOF program, teams walk from one scenario to another with all their equipment, completing at least 6 scenarios per day, split between daytime and after dark. Heather Sayre, an EOD team sergeant training with the SST, explained that practicing counter-IED procedures with limited equipment as well as environmental factors like dismounted movements are examples of many elements added into the training that incrementally increased the challenge and realism.
Sayre took part in another exercise organized by her unit as a follow-up to the SST program that upped the walking distance. She explained one of the key takeaways for the teams was the value of training at night while fatigued. “I did like 10 miles a day of rucking per day of [training], it definitely made a huge difference.”
These seemingly small additions such as the added stress of long movements with weapons and equipment followed by extended periods operating under night vision, make a significant impact, and present more opportunities for teams to see how their bodies and thought processes are affected.
The stressors come to a head during the final days of the 71st SOF Support training. After spending several days training in the field, the teams are individually put through a culminating exercise, referred to as a “full-mission profile” designed to simulate a commando-style raid in an urban environment. Aside from having grenade simulators and blank rounds fired at them, the instructors and role players push the individual bomb techs to make quick decisions under pressure. All the while, radios chatter as other teams and role players shout, calling targets and coordinating fires.
While this combat simulation familiarizes teams with the most basic tactical aspects of direct action missions, it is more so to make the students as uncomfortable as possible as they need to decide quickly how to respond to potential hazards under stress. This process not only tests composure in the face of compounding external stimuli, but it also enhances the team’s understanding of their unique role in the mission: Get the ODA from point to point safely, knowing which threats to confront or bypass and enable the special operators to accomplish their mission all while being able to transition fluidly between roles, acting as both a shooter and a bomb tech.
When it comes to performing under the stressors of combat, few are more knowledgeable than the instructors with the SOF Support Training Team. Most of the trainers have been downrange at least once within the last 24 months, bringing crucial experience directly to the companies which they train. While SOF-centric pre-deployment training had existed for some before the STT was created, these programs were often facilitated by contractors who, although highly qualified, may not have the benefit of recent in-theater experience with an ODA, or have access to recent EOD mission reports and other classified publications.
“The active-duty Army has the most collective SOF support knowledge out of any branch of service as far as EOD goes,” said one senior instructor who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly. “Here we’ve assembled a wealth of that knowledge and are injecting it directly into these teams,” explaining that PMT is not the first place to practice a raid or the time to be learning the basics. “We are trying to get them ready for that.”
Staff Sgt. Brian Bell, another experienced SST instructor, describes that the ability to bring his recent experience into the training is essential to keep up with emerging enemy tactics. “Things are always changing,” Bell said. “Active-duty guys are going downrange and showing people what’s happening right now, not in years past. IEDs that I set up in my training lanes might be similar to those found in 2010, but the scenario is going to be totally different.”
“This is the right model,” said Silva. “It’s so beneficial because in the Army, the NCOs are supposed to be training Soldiers, [and] that’s what we are getting back to. Contractors can only spread their knowledge so long as they are employed by the Army, when the contract goes away so does that knowledge. With more of our NCOs going downrange and bringing this experience back to programs like this we are expanding institutional knowledge that we continue to recycle and grow within the community.”
“My job is to protect the units time,” Silva continued, “and with that gather resources from across the [71st EOD Group]”
Time is often in short supply for EOD companies who have a variety of domestic responsibilities beyond combat deployments, from taking care of unexploded ordnance to being called up for counter-IED emergency response or assisting the Secret Service with VIP protection. That’s not to mention unit members traveling to schools for professional development and executing the many administrative tasks necessary for an organization to function effectively.
“Being able to block out a specific schedule for a program of training that is planned nearly to perfection with no distractions from the task at hand really gets people motivated to train,” said Staff Sgt. Jarrett Salter, a veteran of multiple combat deployments with special operations.
Now in training as a student, Salter holds a unique perspective, given his tours supporting ODAs and having worked as an instructor for the 71st Group SOF Support team.
“Having the program is paramount,” said Salter. “When I was part of the program as an [instructor] I fell in love with it. It was the best training of any kind I had done in EOD. The precise organization, content and willingness to teach and learn was phenomenal.”
“Running through this training as a student even with all the experience I have was hugely beneficial,” he continued. “No matter how many deployments you have it’s important never to get stuck in a ‘been-there done-that’ mentality, I wanted to sharpen my skills, be evaluated critically and get direct feedback. The instructors didn’t hold anything back and that speaks to the strength of the cadre.”
While the SOF support training is a critical move forward, there are still improvements to be made.
Army bomb techs have expressed the need for more pre-deployment integration since EOD teams often don’t meet their Special Forces teammates until the PMT that occurs shortly before heading downrange.
Experienced techs say that meeting prior to PMT is essential in building trust and effective working relationships. Effectiveness, in the initial days of what should be a final exercise to get teams in a working rhythm, is reduced when teams have to become acquainted with each other for the first time while simultaneously trying to rehearse critical tasks and drills.
“If you get all that out of the way prior, teams show up at PMT ready to work and it really becomes a culminating event,” Bell explained
The Army is planning an increase in this integrated training that many have asked for, according to Silva, who called the SST ‘Phase Zero’ in the pre-deployment process, to be followed by exercises conducted at the unit level, with integrated training subsequent to that.
Seasoned EOD team leaders have also commented that more concurrent formal training, as well as the creation of additional specialized EOD units with integral assessment and selection programs, would be beneficial for the future of the EOD mission with special ops.
This future, near and far, is on the minds of many bomb disposal soldiers as it is likely that the U.S. government’s reliance on SOF to lead coalition partner forces in combat and train U.S. allies abroad will continue, if not increase.
President Biden has already expressed intent to rely on special operations forces in the Middle East. And Green Berets have been consistently engaged in Afghanistan as well as Africa, where a contingent was recently deployed to Mozambique to assist counter-terrorism forces in the region.
With this future in mind, new training initiatives like the one led by the team leaders in the 71st EOD Group will be critical for a career field where the margin for error is almost nonexistent.
Even individual bomb techs have stepped up, with many voluntarily going into the shop on weekends to train with their teammates, setting up scenarios and building IEDs for each other to disarm.
“Sure I have things I could be doing on a Saturday,” said Pvt. Jedidiah Soda of the 752nd EOD. “But there’s nothing more important than me knowing my job and making sure I can keep everyone alive.”
“I can’t exaggerate how proud I am of the program and the soldiers,” said Silva. “Their attitude couldn’t be better. They understand that what we do is a life and death business, and they go into it with a humble desire to learn and improve.”
This life and death business is a concept few understand more than Staff Sgt. Salter, whose father, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Richard Salter, an Apache pilot, was killed in the Iraq War. Jarrett was 15 years old when he saw a chaplain, casualty assistance officer and a member of his father’s unit arrive on the front steps of his childhood home.
“I had no intentions to join the Army until Christmas of 2005. I got a knock on my door the day after Christmas [and] it was some guy in uniform,” Salter said, explaining that he didn’t answer initially because he didn’t know the person and thought it was odd that they were wearing dress blues.
“I opened the door only when they came back the next day. That’s when I got the news about my dad,” Salter said. “That was the profound moment that made me join EOD. At the time more soldiers were dying due to IEDs more than anything and the only people who knew how to stop that were EOD.”
“When it comes to training like this, it’s of the most importance to me and I think that it’s one of the biggest driving factors for me to continue, be better and do this job,” he continued, “I joined so more people won’t get that knock on the door.”