JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. (AP) — Staff Sgt. Joseph Nelson stumbled into his career as an Army bomb technician without knowing much about the assignment. He tested into the job and didn't see a reason to push for a different one.
Four years and two combat deployments later, he's hooked. It's a life-saving assignment that gives him the freedom to work through complicated problems in small teams.
"We get to think outside the box," said the 24-year-old soldier from the 49th Explosive Ordnance Company at Fort Campbell, Ky.
Nelson's visiting Joint Base Lewis-McChord this month to test himself on a training course designed to help experienced bomb technicians like him move to the next level. If he does well, he'll become the soldier who makes the calls on how to defuse deadly explosives instead of a technician supporting someone else's decisions.
The Army tries to run these courses four times a year, but it doesn't always meet that goal.
Explosive ordnance disposal teams are in high demand to counter the most common weapons used against American forces over the past decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"We often refer to this generation of EOD techs as the greatest generation," said Lt. Col. Frank Davis, who leads Lewis-McChord's 3rd Explosive Ordnance Disposal Battalion. "They have been inundated with deployments back to back to back. They are super soldiers."
Davis said two of his soldiers serving in Afghanistan suffered serious injuries in the past two weeks from explosives. Improvised explosive devices have taken the lives of 238 of the 470 U.S. service members who have been killed in that country this year, according to records kept by icasualties.org.
Davis said the Army has roughly doubled the size of its EOD units because of the threats soldiers have encountered on the battlefield, with typical battalions growing to about 320 soldiers.
That expansion means younger soldiers are taking on more responsibility than they would have in the past.
"It takes time to build a team leader; if you double the size of the companies, that doesn't double the experience," he said.
Training courses such as the one at Lewis-McChord this month help bring young noncommissioned officers up to date on what other explosives groups are learning, Davis said.
Soldiers ran through a series of drills Thursday gauging their abilities to identify an explosive and take steps to neutralize it.
One scenario modeled after the foiled May 2010 Times Square bombing required an EOD technician to disable a weapon placed in a car. That's important to learn because EOD units can be called for stateside missions when civilian law enforcement agencies find bombs.
The evaluators who set up the exercises provided the candidates with tools for the work, but no instructions. Maj. Matt Kuhns of the 3rd EOD Battalion explained that the bomb technicians often "mix and match" their strategies to take out threats in ways they regard as safe.
"There's no one way" to get the job done, said Capt. Bryan Sand, who leads explosives drills at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif. He's at Lewis-McChord to help with this month's training.
Information from: The News Tribune, http://www.thenewstribune.com
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press