Airmen enjoy explosive vocation

By Darrell Todd Maurina: CNJ staff writer

CANNON AIR FORCE BASE — Staff Sgt. Wes Leaverton likes to blow things up.

Or, perhaps more important — he likes making sure things don’t blow up when they’re not supposed to.

“It’s a little different from the normal everyday Air Force,” he said. “Our mission is so varied.”

As a member of Cannon’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal Squadron, Leaverton was part of a team deployed to Iraq to clean up dangerous messes left around the country. Cannon personnel dealt with everything from unexploded American bombs to stored weaponry remaining from the Iraqi military to improvised explosive devices crafted by Iraqi insurgents.

“We worked 12 or 13 hours a day,” Leaverton said. “Even though it was hard work and we’d been six months away from home, you couldn’t have pulled us away.”

Capt. Brian Castner said wives and children often don’t understand why squadron members enjoy disarming explosives. However, Castner said the alternative of letting someone get killed isn’t acceptable.

“Almost everything we do is safe or relatively safe,” Castner said. “It’s when you make a dumb move you have a problem.”

Avoiding those “dumb moves” is a major concern for the military, which puts its explosive ordnance disposal teams through seven to nine months of training before letting them loose.

“It’s one of the hardest schools in the Department of Defense,” Castner said. “I tell people I’m prouder of my explosive ordnance disposal badge than my college degree because I worked harder for it.”

Castner said that out of 30 people who began his training class, four finished.

Once planted, dropped, buried, or otherwise used, explosive devices don’t go away. In fact, they can become more dangerous with age. In Iraq, Cannon personnel had to deal with explosives from the 1991 campaign to drive Saddam Hussein’s army out of Kuwait. Teams in Okinawa still regularly deal with World War II explosives dug up or found on that Japanese island. A few years ago, a World War II-era hand grenade turned up in civilian possession in New Mexico. Special teams such as the squadron at Cannon get disarmed or destroy such explosives.

Occasionally, team members find something on their own. Castner said an explosive ordnance team member noticed a plaque awarded to a high-ranking officer that contained an explosive device — and then noticed the item on the plaque didn’t contain the word “inert.” When tested, the plaque turned out to contain a device that could still have exploded.

Castner said the team’s most dangerous jobs include disarming improvised explosive devices and mines.

“We don’t like to be surprised, but IED’s are always a surprise,” Castner said.

“Munitions are straightforward, what you see is what you get,” Leaverton said. “You always have to consider the worst case, and something modified to do who knows what is always dangerous.”

De-mining is also problematic, not necessarily because the team doesn’t know what the device does but rather because the team often doesn’t know where the devices are.

“You see a mine, you stop, and you say, ‘Where are its friends?’” Leaverton said.

Because the work is hazardous, the squadron’s members are equipped with special suits to deflect bomb blasts when they have no choice but to come into close contact with a device, but the team prefers to send in a special 700-pound robotic device known as “ANDROS.” The robot’s arm and pincers are so sensitive that it can pick up an egg, carry it.

“Usually we have fiber optic cable on those,” Leaverton said. “We can go a half-mile away with these and it works fine. It takes hours of practice, but once you get used to t, it’s like a video game. It’s very slow, but slow is good when it comes to explosives.”