The Army's bomb disposal units have been in high demand since explosives became the weapon of choice against troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. But now, with fewer troops in Iraq, these specialized units have resumed what was once an annual competition to find the best bomb-hunters in the Army.
This week's Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team of the Year competition at Fort Campbell, Ky., was the first time the event was held in 10 years. The three-day event tested the participants' skills against suicide vests, improvised rocket launchers and deadly munitions.
The competition featured the best three teams from the 52nd Ordnance Group, which is headquartered at Fort Campbell, but encompasses units based around the country.
Command Sgt. Maj. Harold Dunn, of the 192nd Ordnance Battalion at Fort Bragg, N.C., said the competition hadn't been held for so long because there was no lack of work for the soldiers, who he said risk their lives to protect other soldiers and civilians from the top killer in today's wars.
"They probably spent 12 months preparing for this competition, going against their peers for 12 months," Dunn said. "So what we are seeing is the best in their field."
While the threat of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, has been growing exponentially since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the number of soldiers who are specially trained to defeat those bombs hasn't grown at the same rate. There are only about 1,800 soldiers in the Army's explosive ordnance disposal units.
The teams endured a grueling 9-mile walk carrying several pounds of gear in the cold rain before they were given a timed mission to identify and dispose of a cache of munitions that had been piled up in a muddy artillery field at Fort Campbell. The fatigued soldiers were also judged on safety precautions, such as how the team handled the munitions, how they were stacked and then detonated.
While the munitions and IEDs used in the competition were just training aids, the teams used real explosives to detonate the fake ordnance. The detonation can send fragments of metal and shrapnel flying, so teams have to carefully determine the explosive power to produce a controlled blast.
Capt. Jeremy Pinson _ a 26-year-old from Fort Bragg who was one of the officers overseeing the competition _ said this scenario is quite similar to the kinds of missions soldiers encounter daily in Afghanistan.
"The guys in Afghanistan are doing this, but they are doing this in the mountains," Pinson said. "The guys in Afghanistan are doing this, but they are carrying seven days' worth of supplies and their equipment on their back, moving from village to village, house to house."
EOD teams have adapted with better technology, such as robotics, to counter the IED threat, but they still have to rely on training and hands-on techniques to deal with a wide variety of explosives, said Lt. Col. Michael Evans, 192nd Ordnance Battalion commander and rear commander of the 52nd Ordnance Group.
"Because the threat has evolved so fast, and they are so lethal, we've had to rely on more remote means," Evans said. "But the principles are always there."
Sgt. James Swartz, one of the soldiers competing, has served more than two years in combat during two deployments to Iraq. That experience really helps in this competition, he said.
"Everything that we have done is based on stuff you see in Iraq or Afghanistan," he said. "Most of the guys who have deployed have seen it downrange and this is just a chance to compare your skills to other teams, to see how you compare and learn from other teams."
The competition was tougher than he expected, but he noted that he still enjoys his extreme job and knowing he's helping keep people safe.
"I love it," he said, grinning. "I get to come out here and blow stuff up."