Thanks to The Hurt Locker and two recent wars where the leading cause of death was "bombs buried by the side of the road," military explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) techs have never been more visible in the media. And thanks to the laziness of that media exposure, most of you know way less about EOD than you think you do.
Well, I was in EOD from before the start of the war on terror up until a couple of years ago. I saw about as much as one guy can see without getting any plastic limbs, and I can say that contrary to popular belief ...
#5. Cutting Wires Is the Last Resort (Shotguns Are the First)
Thanks to Hollywood, when you picture a bomb technician disarming any kind of explosive, you picture a dude clipping a tangle of colored wires connected to a timer that is helpfully counting down the seconds remaining until catastrophic failure. And while you assume that in real life most terrorists aren't courteous enough to attach a ticking clock -- why the hell would they? -- the whole wire clipping thing seems realistic enough. I mean, how else would you disarm a bomb?
Well, if you're smart, you'll start by hiding behind something and shooting it with a shotgun.
What you're looking at is something called a PAN disruptor. It's not technically a shotgun, but it works in a similar way (in that it propels sundry objects down a tube), and it has the bonus of sounding like something a Romulan would use. There are several different rounds we can load it with, including watershells and normal shotshells, depending on what the situation calls for. We also use regular shotguns from time to time, as well as Barrett sniper rifles loaded with .50 caliber paperweight-size bullets. All these have the same purpose: energetic disruption, which is a fancy term for "shooting at bombs until they fall apart or explode."
When we encounter a device, our first instinct is to go with some remote means of disruption, because that's the best way to keep a wad of shrapnel from tearing through your lungs. But you can't shoot every bomb -- sometimes the asshole bombers have planted the device near a structure that is both valuable to society and not impervious to bombs. This is when we send in the robots. Unfortunately, it didn't take long for the insurgents to figure out that they could plant one big bomb to draw the robot in and then hide a smaller ambush bomb along the way to take the robot out. So we started carrying two robots, and the insurgents responded by planting bigger clusters of bombs, and eventually that process ends with me waddling up in a huge armored suit to try to disarm the device myself.
"Enchiladas were a poor lunch choice."
Approaching a bomb is easily the worst part of the job. You see, that whole "burying bombs in ambush clusters" thing isn't something they only do to the robots. Add that to the fact that as you are walking out there, there is a good chance you are obliviously looking down the barrel of some unseen gun. Unless you're really lucky, the bomb you are heading out to defuse is actually the least scary thing around you.
#4. It's Not a One-Man Show
When you think "military bomb squad," there's probably one image that pops into your mind:
First, it's important for you to understand that Captain McSpaceMarine up there is useless on his own. For one thing, that suit weighs close to a hundred pounds, and wearing it midday in a Middle Eastern desert is pretty much throwing out the welcome mat for Hubert Heat Stroke and his friend, Deon Dehydration-Madness. Your brain plays tricks on you when heat exhaustion sets in, and wearing that suit can exhaust you fast. After a while you'll start to second-guess yourself and maybe make bad decisions. And that's why there's a team of other bomb techs watching you, ready to step in and offer helpful advice such as "No, you impossible fool, you'll kill us all."
See, we function in three-man teams at minimum. But that isn't all; there's also a security team to watch your back, because shooting people while disarming a bomb is not the kind of multitasking anyone excels in. And no, you're not going to pick up a gun and go all Master Chief on some bad guys while inside the bomb suit. That thing is not made for aggression -- you're armored, but essentially defenseless, like a giant turtle. Your whole world is putting one foot in front of the other. It takes an extra person just to help you put the damn thing on.
Krafft Angerer/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Also like a turtle, getting rolled on your back means you're fucked.
Of course, none of that makes wearing a Bomb Tech Suit anything less than freaking sweet. It won't stop every bullet that's coming at you, and there are explosions big enough to reduce the suit to merely being the difference between a closed and an open casket funeral. But you really do feel like a legitimate space marine in that thing, and every now and then you get to act like one.
The very first time I ever wore the suit was in a low-income housing section close to the military base I worked in. A kid was selling dope out of his house, and underneath a mattress they found what they thought was dynamite with a fuse. There I was, a few months out of school, getting to suit up for the very first time, but when I showed up at the house I realized that I was too damn big to get through the door. "I can't fit," I told the cops. Then the local police lieutenant asked me one of the greatest questions that anyone has ever been asked: "Can you ram through the door frame?"
The only possible answer to this question is to bash your way inside like a 1950s robot, so I took a few steps back and went "Hey, Kool-Aid!" right through the door frame. I felt nothing. It was like walking through reeds, only with splinters everywhere.
#3. It's Not Just Terrorist Bombs That Need Defusing
The vast majority of injuries my guys faced stateside weren't from terrorists. They were from fireworks. Back in 2011, five civilian unexploded ordnance techs died working on a pile of seized fireworks. Again, not terrorists. Fucking fireworks.
Yeah, the Fourth of July might as well be called "War on Explosive Ordnance Disposal as a Career Field Day." This is because everyone, aspiring EOD guys included, treats fireworks like toys. But they're filled with something called photo flash powder, which can be ignited with friction ("friction" being another word for "touching it the wrong way"). All it takes is one errant rub from your keys or your wallet, and that pocket full of fireworks is going to explode. And if one firecracker goes off, well ... here's what happened to a fireworks factory in Thailand:
Meanwhile, if some old chemical ordnance from World War II washes up in the Chesapeake Bay, guess who gets called to take care of it? Hell, we're still getting sent to clean up Civil War ordnance -- people use old cannonballs as doorstops. This one woman had kept a cannonball in her house for her whole life, constantly hitting it with the door and knocking stuff into it over the course of 40 or 50 years. What's the problem with that? Well, cannonballs aren't always just balls of lead -- they're often shells full of explosives. Sure enough, one day she and her husband had a spat and she slammed the door in a huff, and for whatever damned reason that was the day Mr. Cannonball chose to finally fulfill his sacred destiny.
"We're here, as a family, to tell you that you really need to get your shit together."
We had another case where a farmer stored dynamite in a wooden box on his farm for decades. I have no idea what he was saving it for. The apocalypse, maybe. The thing is, dynamite sweats nitroglycerin when you leave it out long enough. Add that gradually increasing pool of nitroglycerin to the wooden floors and bales of straw you find in a typical farmhouse, and it all amounts to a gigantic firework ready to go off in spectacular fashion. So yeah, the hell with getting anywhere near that. We wound up burning the whole place to the ground just to keep it from blasting a crater into the Earth like a goddamned meteor.