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Walking the 'lonely walk.' Who is EOD? (Part 3 of 3)

October 2, 2012

By Sgt. Christopher McCullough

FORWARD OPERATING BASE LAGMAN, Afghanistan - Approach an IED. Just the thought of doing as much is enough to send shivers down even the bravest soldier's spine, but sometimes that is just what the soldiers of 787 EOD have to do.

"If my team member can't get the robot down there, or the robot breaks down, or it goes off a cliff into the water or something, I have to put that bomb suit on and go down there," says Conard. "It's what they call the 'lonely walk.' There's no one else out there. It's just you."

The "lonely walk"

The Hollywood movie the "Hurt Locker" glamorized the walk, but I wanted to know, what is it really like?

"I get a little jittery sometimes, but you just have to go," Conard explains. "Many times I've low-crawled up to something like that, looked over the berm and there was a 155 [mm artillery round] staring me in the face. You pucker up and then your training just takes over. You get in there, you do immediate action drills on it, you take care of it, and then when you're do it again."

The scenario Conard describes was done in an 80 pound, oversized, Kevlar bomb suit with ballistic plates that is confining and, in summertime, very hot to wear.

"In the summertime, when it's 120 degrees Fahrenheit, I'll come out of [the suit] soaked from head to toe with my own sweat," says Conard. "There's no airflow in it. You have some airflow going through your mask to keep it from fogging up, but [for] the rest of your body, there's no airflow in it."

Given Conard's description of the bomb suit, I had to wonder, how does an EOD technician disarm an IED with such a bulky, confining suit on?

"That's what we're trained to do," Conard said. "Sometimes if you're out there for hours and hours, you take a five [minute break]. You get in the truck, take off your helmet, get some air, put the helmet back on [and get back to the job]."

"You just do it"

Ask any EOD specialist where their confidence comes from, almost every one of them would attribute it to the training they do. It is what EOD specialists do when they are not disabling IEDs or unexploded ordnance. That is because when the time comes to put on the suit and walk the "lonely walk," as Conard describes, he or she doesn't have time to think.

"You just do it," said Conard. "It's instantaneous. [An insurgent] could be dialing the code to detonate it [the IED] on you, or has the command wire and is ready to hook a battery to it. You don't have time to think; you just have to react and do it."

Disarming an IED is intrinsically dangerous, but for an EOD tech the most dangerous part of their mission is not what they can see but rather, as Conard describes it, "not seeing what's out there; the unknown."

The unknown variable Conard alludes to is the secondary IED. A secondary IED is often a hidden explosive attached to the primary IED and is designed to detonate whenever an EOD tech attempts to disarm the primary explosive.

"If you can't see it, that's the most hazardous part," Conard says. "What you can see is easy, but with all the other things your mind is focused on, you can't focus on the little thing. That's where it gets the most dangerous, because they're out to kill us because we're stopping them from killing other people."

"The Hurt Locker"

So with everything Marvin and Conard explained to me about the world of an Explosive Ordnance Technician, I had to know what they thought of the 2010 Hollywood blockbuster, "The Hurt Locker," and whether it accurately depicted what the real EOD is like. Conard was quick to point out that their job is not at all like what was portrayed.

"I watched five minutes of that movie...and they completely Hollywoodized it," Conard said. "I didn't like it. Same thing with that [TV show] 'Bomb Patrol: Afghanistan.' The concept is there, the equipment stuff is there, but a lot of it is make-believe. If my guys ran that way, I'd be digging in their backside on a continuous basis. That's not how we operate. But people in the states will see that and be like 'that's how it is over there?' No, that's not how it is."

Conard goes on to clarify that if anyone wants a history of what EOD is really like, that they should watch the BBC production "Danger: UXB." According to Conard, it is a series on British EOD that he describes as "the best show that I've seen on EOD in the past." He notes, however, that the IED world is "a whole different thing."

The U.S. and its allies have been in Afghanistan over a decade during which time the IEDs have proliferated, putting coalition and Afghan forces alike at risk of injury or death. But with so many IEDs throughout the country, I had to wonder whether EOD is really making a difference here in Afghanistan, which Marvin immediately seized upon.

"We are making a difference with every IED or explosive we dispose of or render safe, because that one IED could have killed an American, an Afghan civilian, a NATO partner," said Marvin. "I believe our partnership [with the Afghan National Army] is making a difference. The more that we can empower our ANA EOD teams, the better they'll be able to handle the situation when we leave, because we are leaving eventually. The best thing that we can do is to train them up to do the job with confidence and competence."

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