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9 November 2007

By Douglas Harpel, reporting from near Tikrit, Iraq

There’s brave and then there’s being a bomb technician in Iraq.

With huge bounties placed on their heads by local insurgent forces -- $50,000 for a basic EOD tech, $75,000 for senior EOD tech, and $150,000 for a master EOD tech – the brave men who serve as Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) technicians in this north-central region of Iraq know that they are making a profoundly valuable contribution to both the war and civil stabilization efforts here.

Taking an hour with this writer and others prior to his attendance at a memorial service for a fellow EOD tech who was killed just Tuesday in an insurgent attack, Senior Chief Petty Officer Chuck Leonard, the senior enlisted advisor within the Army’s 184th Ordnance Battalion (EOD) discussed the focus of his group’s work here.

Leonard, who a day earlier had accompanied the body of his brother in arms to Balad Air Base and who had flown back to Tikrit with our small press gaggle, explained that while hostilities in Baghdad may have lessened and while U.S. diplomatic entreaties with Iraq may eventually stem the flow of the deadly explosively formed penetrator (EFP) IEDs to and through Iraq, EOD technicians operating in north-central Iraq have seen no downturn in their workload.
Citing sixteen successful EOD (counter-IED) missions in the prior two days, Leonard told us that insurgent emplacement of increasingly sophisticated IEDs remains on the rise.  “This is the hottest AO [Area of Operations] in the [Iraqi] theater.” Indeed, he related that by the time his men cycle out of this mission after a six-month tour, they will have 400-500 missions under their belts.

For Leonard and his comrades, the payoff for the perilous work they do and the risks they take is in the knowledge that they are saving lives every day, not only of U.S. forces operating in the area, but also of the very Iraqis that they are seeking to secure this country for. 

Human Intelligence & Improved Equipment

Leonard explains that his attraction to the EOD mission is its balance between physical stimulation and mental challenge.  In other areas of warfare, he explained, the mission is about the equipment being used.  “In EOD, it’s about the men and the knowledge and experience that they bring to what they are doing.”It takes special men and woman to be EOD techs.  Leonard notes that all of the EOD techs are volunteers – “they are people who just want to blow [expletive] up” -- who are further screened by the community to ensure that they have the proper aptitude and disposition for the job.
“We place tremendous decision-making responsibility at the E-5 and E-6 level.  Our people have to be smarter than the average bear.”

While the human element remains paramount, Leonard has seen technology make a huge difference in how the EOD mission is executed since he became an EOD tech in the Navy some seven years ago.

“When the [Operation Iraqi Freedom] war started, we were primarily using ropes and pulleys and doing everything up close and in kit [full body armor and Kevlar helmet].”  Today, Leonard explains, while old-school, tried-and-true “1940s-style” EOD approaches are sometimes required, technology, particularly robotics technology, generally allows the techs to perform their disarm and destruct missions at a safer stand-off distance.
Leonard has particularly high praise for the Force Protection Inc.-manufactured Joint EOD Emergency Recovery Vehicle (JEERV) – the new 40,000 pound EOD response vehicles -- which he says provides his technicians with unrivaled protection.
“We can drive over Humvees.”  He is also generally pleased with the TALON III-B robot, a system designed and manufactured by Foster-Miller.  “The TALON has changed the game for us.  We’ve got some good kids – some X-Box kings – that can do a lot with the robot.”  And that’s the preferred solution, Leonard notes, adding: “If you can’t do it remotely, you have to got down there and do it personally.”

As for its shortcomings, Leonard says that the TALON is as large as it can be while still being man-liftable from the JEERV, but yet is not large enough to lift all of the IED elements – such as 155mm artillery rounds -- that they come across.  He also noted that the robotic arm would be much more useful if it had a full range of motion. 

Learning lessons, informing the fight

While every soldier lost in the EOD mission is a tragedy, Leonard notes that his battalion is methodically taking the lessons learned from every mission success or failure, and passing them up through channels, in a concerted effort to improve EOD tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) moving forward.

“A lot of people think that EOD is just interested in the “boom” and that’s not the case” says Leonard’s boss and Battalion Commander Lt. Colonel Craig Irland, adding that extensive post-blast analysis (PBA) renders intelligence that informs threat characterization efforts and new product development via such organizations as Task Force Troy fusion cell and the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO).

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