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In a war in which most coalition casualties are caused by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), no unit is more important than Explosive Ordnance Disposal. Perhaps that's why Steven Bochco felt obligated to smear them as unreliable in his anti-war, anti-reality TV series "Over There." But here's what I saw with a real EOD team I was embedded with at Camp Fallujah, Iraq.
Commanded by Navy Lt. Cameron Chen, the 8th Engineer Support Battalion EOD comprises ten Marines and five sailors.
Like all EOD personnel, they trained at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Marines get seven months of instruction, with sailors an additional two to disable underwater devices.
Our first call came from a patrolling Recon team. EOD gets plenty of false alarms, but this was real. The duty EOD response team grabbed me and we quickly set off in a Humvee.
The enemy favors using artillery shells as IEDS, although anything can conceal a homemade bomb including even animal carcasses. Cars and trucks either used in suicide attacks or left by the side of the road are called vehicle-borne IEDs.
(VBIEDs.) In our case, a 130-millimeter shell packed with P4 plastic explosive had been buried just to the side of a major highway. Terrorists favor this location, since it's difficult to bury and conceal a bomb in asphalt.
Recon remained to protect us, while we arrived with our own security escort from military police. The IED they come to disarm is usually the least safety worry of EOD teams. Terrorists don't like these guys who remove their little "gifts," and use many means to stop them.
One of these is secondary IEDs, meant to kill you while you disarm the primary one. Another is ambushes enroute to or at the site. These may include attacks from groups or snipers, suicide VBIEDs, or a combination of the above. The day before I last talked to Chen he and his crew were caught in 30-minute firefight.
EOD does everything it can to reduce these risks, such as putting two Humvees into a V-shape and trying to stay inside the V as much as possible. (Photo-snapping reporters do wander, but eventually get yelled at. Ahem!)
The days of manually disarming bombs while wearing protective suits are mostly gone, thanks to a nifty tracked robot called the Talon. Directed by laptop computer, these agile fellows are about three feet long and stand about three feet high. They carry an array of cameras to provide good viewing angles, with grippers mounted out front to manipulate IED components.
Why not just blow the bomb up? Because it would destroy forensic evidence that tells EOD what the latest bomb technology is and often leads to the bomb-maker. "We're not just defeating that particular device," says Chen. "We disrupt it, collect evidence, then go after the makers and take them down."
Our Talon trotted down the road to the IED from our secure area 300 meters back, but when it arrived the laptop went screwy.
Plan B. EOD placed a couple of pounds of C4 on a four-wheeled robot the size of a shoebox made from off-the-shelf parts.
(It's commonly called a "bombbot"). It moseyed down to the IED, then exploded. As planned though, it only rendered the bomb safe from remote detonation leaving the bomb and peripheral parts intact.
Only at that point was the IED destroyed, with myself as guest of honor given the honor of igniting the fuse. While this was going on Recon captured the triggermen trying to scamper off, young men in jogging suits and tennis shoes. Their exciting adventure to kill and mutiate Americans would end in Abu Ghraib.
Throughout my embed I was impressed with the coolness and professionalism of EOD. A good sense of humor apparently being required for such nerve-wracking work, we had a blast in more ways than one.
What drives such men? "We are motivated to do our best by those who risking their lives daily patrolling the streets and highways and keeping terrorists from bringing their work to the States," says Chen. "We are customer-oriented explosives consultants and nothing makes us happier than keeping everyone safe."
Hang down your head in shame, Steven Bochco.