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EOD Team Destroys Weapons One Cache at a Time

By Sgt. Frank Magni, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

JALALABAD, Afghanistan, Dec. 23, 2004 – After nearly 30 years of war, Afghanistan is full of leftover munitions from the Soviet occupation and the unrest that followed until the coalition ousted the Taliban in October 2001.

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Sgt. Jerod Harding, 707th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company team member, takes digital photographs of a weapons cache for use in estimating the amount of explosives needed to destroy the ordnance. Photo by Sgt. Frank Magni, USA

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With rockets, mortars and mines littering virtually every corner of the country, eliminating these hazards has become a huge concern for coalition forces and the Afghan government.

Explosive ordnance disposal teams are spread throughout the country responding to the calls for support. These teams can be found everywhere from main installations like Bagram Air Base to the most remote forward operating bases.

"We are out here every day to make this country safe for military and (local citizens)," said Army Spc. Bill Fitzpatrick, 707th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company. Fitzpatrick, along with Sgt. Jerod Harding and team leader Staff Sgt. Miles Cathers, operates in and around Nangahar province in eastern Afghanistan, supporting many coalition units.

Most EOD teams consist of two people, but it reduces the strain of the mission by having an extra person to assist with the myriad of tasks EOD soldiers are responsible for. "It is like a crapshoot for us," said Cathers. "One day we might be destroying the contents of a cache, the next we might have to disable a bomb in a village."

Employing equipment from robots to sniper rifles, the tools each team has to do its job are as numerous as the tasks themselves. Whether is it is rendering unexploded ordnance "safe," or blowing it up in place, the first level of decision-making falls to the team leader on the scene.

Working with unit leadership, an EOD team leader is the primary ordnance adviser in an area. Helping leaders balance decisions and giving the best estimates possible on the risk of detonation to personnel and equipment make the team leader's job demanding.

Cathers is on his third deployment to Afghanistan, and the leaders he works with trust his advice. "I tell the leader, 'These are the things we can do,'" he said. "Many leaders I work with go directly off the advice I give."

With extensive experience in EOD operations within the country, Cathers said he relies heavily on his training and approaches each mission using two tools: experience and a careful thought process. With the variety of different scenarios each team can encounter, all EOD personnel are sent into a situation with years of experience from throughout the field of EOD personnel. The experience is bolstered with updated doctrine that is used to assess each scenario.

"Everything we do has precedents," said Cathers. "We never go into a situation without knowing how a piece of ordnance works."

But experience and doctrine are only one part of the equation for the EOD team. Problem solving skills also are vital.

"There is no such thing as a cookie-cutter mission," said Cathers. EOD soldiers must be prepared to think on their feet and adapt to any situation.

"We have to be very good problem solvers," said Cathers. "We aren't just 'John Wayneing' it out there. We think every problem through."

In Afghanistan, the team's approach is simple. "If anything is unsecured, we take care of it right there," said Fitzpatrick. "If not, it could possibly come back as a roadside bomb." The team also prioritizes the ordnance found in each cache with the same mindset. "We destroy the items that can be used against coalition forces first," said Fitzpatrick.

While the approach each soldier takes to his job remains the same, each outlook on why each member chose EOD is different. "I need to know that I've done something important at the end of the day," said Harding. "With EOD, I feel like I'm doing something good every day."

Others on the team feel they were born to do EOD. "I was always the kid who would take something apart and put it back together again," said Fitzpatrick. "I think this job is a perfect fit for me."

One theme that remains constant in Canter's team is a feeling of brotherhood. "We are really close," said Cather. "In many ways, I'm trusting my life with a team member. In a way, they feel like brothers to me."

Cathers avoids feeling like there is no end in sight to the overwhelming amount of ordnance surfacing each day. "I just take it one mission at a time," he said. "Each time I have left Afghanistan, it has felt like I made the country at least a little bit safer. This time will be no exception."

(Army Sgt. Frank Magni is assigned to the 17th Public Affairs Detachment.)

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageStaff Sgt. Miles Cathers, 707th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company team leader, controls a robot the team uses to safely examine hazardous items. Photo by Sgt. Frank Magni, USA  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageSgt. Jerod Harding, 707th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company team member, replaces the battery in a remotely controlled robot. The sophisticated robot enables EOD personnel to examine hazardous items while keeping the team members out of harm's way. Photo by Sgt. Frank Magni, USA  
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