5 Ways Movies Get Bomb Defusing Wrong (An Inside Look)
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 ...
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.
Never has the term "boomstick" been more appropriate.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You Spend a Lot of Time Dealing With the Media
OK, everyone knows the Hurt Locker side of our jobs -- disarming terrifying devices downrange in some sandy chunk of Explodesylvania, Middle Eastistan. But the United States Military EOD is also the go-to bomb squad for a ton of major law enforcement agencies, including the Secret Service. See, it takes about a year to train a person to dick around with bombs without becoming an immediate tragedy. Why spend all that money on a dedicated bomb squad when you can just outsource it to some federal employees who already have a ton of experience? So for instance, when the president has a press conference, we have to be there to make sure none of the cameras are actually bombs, or hidden guns, or hidden bomb guns, or some sort of alarming new weapon that turns guns into bombs. Part of this involves processing the media people before every event, and that was almost always smooth sailing.
"I'm going to try to have us not die. Cool?"
Almost always. Tom Brokaw once screamed at us for so long, I thought he was seconds away from keeling over with heart failure, and no part of my training included a course on how to defuse Tom Brokaw. He was on his phone, and the call was important enough that he flatly refused to shut it at the check point. This was a problem, because we were required to check that phone for bomb guns, but we had no actual authority over Mr. Brokaw. So a Secret Service guy intervened and politely flipped his clam shell shut. And I don't mean "politely" in a sarcastic way -- the Secret Service guys are in British-butler mode when they're on duty, 100 percent of the time.
Politeness notwithstanding, Brokaw lost his fucking mind. Apparently you don't hang up that man's phone without his consent.
I thought it was the Greatest Generation, not the Great Ass Generation.
Generally speaking, the bigger the media personality, the less they feel like they should be hassled. I did an event in D.C. years back with Stevie Wonder, and his entourage sandbagged us every step of the way, making our job extremely difficult. "Do you know who I am?" "Well, no. Are you the keyboard player? I'm just a soldier, give me a break. I've got a job to do." If I had a nickel for every time I've heard "Do you know who I am?" I would have no use for the GI Bill.
Not everyone is an asshole about it, though. For example, Robin Williams loves everything about everybody. Matthew Perry also deserves kudos, because he didn't get mad when my partner and I knocked him down. We were in suits and ties and earpieces, running down the street in Manhattan to a job site, and my partner ran headlong into Perry. He got up, gave us a smirk, and asked, "Hey, who's in town?"
"It's cool, man. I've had to work with some bombs too."
I gave him my stock reply when someone in New York asks that question: "Paul Reubens."
We're the Authority (Unless You're a Civilian)
Subordinates never give orders to higher ranking soldiers in the military, but there are certain situations where ceremony and privilege have to fall away in the interests of stopping explosions from killing us all. As such, the first EOD responder to arrive becomes the on-scene commander, and while he may not have the highest rank, his advice comes with the added postscript "or we'll all die horribly."
I can't think of a time when I've said "We need to do now" and had anyone in the military question me. Civilians, on the other hand, are free to pay us as little attention as their personal philosophy dictates. See, there's this act called Posse Comitatus, and it basically means that no one from the military is allowed to do anything that looks like law enforcement while on American soil. It's meant to prevent something like a coup, but it also means EOD folks have absolutely no authority over civilians in an active situation.
"I paid for all-you-can-eat wings, I'm getting all-you-can-eat wings. Work around me."
Whether we're working with the Secret Service or the local sheriffs, it's the same thing: They do the ordering, we do the bomb disposing (and our lawyers handle everything else). For instance, say we need to clear some dude's barn because his collection of fertilizer and blasting caps is putting the whole neighborhood at risk. Even if we don't need to destroy the barn, he might decide to check up on us, because it's his property, and people in rural areas aren't always super fond of government employees. Now, we can't have civilians hovering around for a few reasons -- sometimes it's because of the obvious, and other times it's because the techniques or tools we're using are classified. But they are under no obligation to listen to us.
"You're goin' with the green wire? Really? It's always the red on the TV."
It's a pain in the butt either way, but there are compensating moments of glory. During my time in the Carolinas, one of our teams had to deal with a suspicious package. We ultimately decided that the safest thing to do was blast the shit out of it (see "shooting bombs until they explode," above), so that's exactly what we did. Now, this was at a big press event, so there were tons of news crews on sight, and they all wanted to get the whole thing on film. We warned them it was dangerous, but they chose not to listen to us, and we had no power to order them to leave. So we energetically disrupted the suspicious package, and out flew a very large adult entertainment device that proceeded to flop across the entire parking lot in front of all the six-o'clock news vans like a phallic fish out of water.
Hey, we did warn them.
Robert Evans wrote a book, A Brief History of Vice, in which he drank his own pee to test an ancient tobacco recipe. The least you can do is pre-order it.
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