Monday, August 1, 2011

Pocket Change, an EOD Adventure

Getting old and reminiscing about our youth is a common theme in popular culture, whether it's a song or a movie. I have no desire to go back and relieve those days, but they are worth remembering. I was fortunate to have some experiences that were powerful enough that I was able to lock in the time and place clearly in my mind. To remember how it felt to be in that younger body, and to clearly remember the smells and sounds and feelings. Some of the most vivid memories I have, are from the four years stretch of active duty that I served in the US Army. Friendships seemed to develop faster and events seemed to be more important.
I've never served in combat, and it is simultaneously the source of my greatest relief and greatest regret. I was a Cold War soldier. The Soviet Union was the enemy and it seemed very likely that during my tour from 1984-88, we would meet them on the battlefield, likely in Europe. During that time, there were still many Vietnam Era vets on active duty, and many young soldiers like me, were in awe of their stories. People did not support the troops and soldiers were looked down on.
I had a bumpy ride getting to my permanent duty station and even when I found my home, it was not smooth sailing. But those are stories for a different day. This story is about a time when I had brass balls the size of church bells and felt that if I wasn't exactly immortal, I was certainly invincible.
I was 19, and stationed at the 60th EOD, Ft Dix New Jersey. EOD stands for Explosive Ordnance Disposal. Our job was to render safe unexploded ordnance, and we were damned good at it. On that sweltering summer day, I still had marks to show where the two prongs of the badge, affectionately known as a "Crab", were shoved into my chest by my loving and supportive unit members. Thank god that an EOD detachment consisted of no more than fourteen people.
On the day in question, we were out at the grenade range. Ft. Dix was a training post, and many basic trainees went through there over the years. One of the required parts of training was throwing a live grenade. Thousands of trainees went through every year, and with all of those thousands of grenades, some were bound to fail to function as designed. Every post is different, and at Ft Dix, we dealt with a wide variety of ordnance and even had our share of IED's(Improvised Explosive Devices). But what we had the most of, was grenades. The lot were dealing with that summer had a larger than normal percentage of springs that were broken. For those of you that don’t know, the "spoon" on a grenade holds back a striker with a spring. When the pin is removed and the spoon is released, the spring slams the striker into a fuse that in turn burns for a few seconds before detonating and setting off the explosive. The batch we were dealing with had a lot of broken springs, so the striker never flipped over and the fuse wasn't initiated. The render safe procedure for a grenade was the blow it in place. We did this with a block of C-4. We always put two blasting caps in it to make sure it went off, redundancy in all things.
A tech's biggest enemy in those days was complacency. I'm sure it is still a danger for the EOD techs today, but they also face a greater threat in Afghanistan and Iraq. The bad guys figured out that these guys were rendering safe all of their nasty roadside bombs, so the started specifically targeting EOD. The school is about 8 months long and it takes years of real world experience to get really good at the job. I barely scratched the surface in my short stint and don’t claim to have achieved the expertise of a ten or twenty year vet. By targeting the techs, they slow down the process, spread the rest of the guys thin and in turn killed more people with their IED's.
We didn’t have to deal with any of that. Hell, back then we didn’t even have bomb suits. They were introduced just as I was getting out and I never wore one on an incident. Our uniform, especially in the summer, was boots, pants and a t-shirt. A hat could fall at an inopportune time and the uniform blouse could get in the way. The only thing we had on us beside the stripped down uniform was our Hero Kit. It was a leather tool belt that held a dive knife, a demo pocket knife, a blasting cap crimper, a Leatherman tool and a roll of electrical tape hanging by a short chain.
When we had so many dud grenades, thanks to faulty springs, it made sense to go out first thing in the morning with a bunch of supplies and camp out at the range instead of driving back and forth each time. We did that for a couple of weeks and I will admit that I had become complacent. On this particular day, I remember sitting in the air condition van and arguing over whose turn it was to walk down range it the blazing sun. We all liked to blow stuff up, but it was like Africa hot that summer. There was no sense in arguing either, since I was low man, but it was matter of pride to be able to come up with the best excuse for why I shouldn’t go next. It also helped pass the one hour wait time. When a grenade fails to function as designed, there was a mandatory one hour wait time. It used to be 15 minutes, then 30, then 45 and but at that time it was an hour. The time would be increased each time there was a grenade somewhere that decided to wait until longer the current limit to go off. I sometimes wondered while walking down range if I would be the reason the new wait time was 75 minutes.
I stepped out of the van after 55 minutes, went to the back of the van and prepared my C-4 charge. Then, with 200 basic trainees and a cadre of mostly Vietnam era veterans watching, I walked around the large brick wall and onto the range to find the grenade. Did I saw walked? It was more of a strut. No quite a full out pimp walk, but it those big brass balls made it hard to walk like a normal person.
I knew that it was another broken spring. I knew it to the point where I didn’t even question it. I strolled down range, my gigantic balls clanking in the rhythm of my pace, sure of my invulnerability. The Drill Sergeant had said that the female trainee had "really chucked it", so I headed for the middle of the hard packed dirt range that was pitted with holes from all of the blasts. It resembled a prairie dog habitat. When the holes got too deep, they were supposed to close down and grade it, but that slowed down training, so they always pushed it as far as they could.
During a rainstorm a few weeks before, I'd had to reach down into several holes, some up to my shoulder before I found the grenade. Even with gigantic brass balls and a strong believe in my invulnerability, I questioned my intelligence after the 3rd hole. But there was no rain in sight as I made my search on that day. The heat index was on the ratty edge of being unsafe for outside training and after fifteen minutes of checking holes, I was getting frustrated and thirsty. I looked up at the blast resistant glass for some help, but the Drill Sergeant only shrugged. I headed for the wall, resigned to perform a foot by foot grid search of the entire range. When I was ten feet from the wall, I saw a bulge in the sand at its base the size of a ball, or in this case, a grenade. The private that had "really chucked it", had done so straight down into the ground. I figured that the range sergeants were going to be pissed that I blew a hole in their brick wall, but rules were rules and I set my charge down to blow it in place.
As I bent over to place the charge a strong wind came through and uncovered the grenade. I expected to see another broken spring, but instead, I saw a very healthy spring straining against the sand, attempting to complete its mission. More wind blew and the spring twitched in anticipation.
There are many times in stories where the author will describe a segment of time slowing down for the intrepid hero. I have to tell you that while there is an illusion of time slowing; the reality is that the adrenaline that hits your system speeds up your brain function into overdrive. In less than a second, I disregarded the idea of running, or throwing the grenade. I remembered the change I had in my pocket. At EOD School, a crusty old sergeant had told me to always carry two dimes and a quarter. The two dimes were for a bomb fuse I never saw outside of training, but the quarter was for this very moment. For many years after I got out, even after my brass balls shrunk to almost normal size and I no longer believed in my invulnerability, I carried two dimes and a quarter with me everywhere I went.
I pulled the quarter out of my pocket and slid it between the striker and the fuse just as the spring overcame the sand. There was a loud click as it snapped shut, holding the quarter in place. Now in auto pilot mode, I used a strip of electric tape to secure the quarter, and since I had already picked it up, moved out fifty feet before I set it and the C-4 charge down. I pulled both igniters and walked slowly back to the van.
I was greeted with a scowl from my sergeant. "What took you so long?"
I told him and he shrugged. We went back to waiting for the next dud as more trainees threw grenades and the sun sagged down toward the horizon. It was just another day on the job, and even at the time I didn't find it very remarkable. It was my most interesting grenade, but at the time, that was like your most memorable glass of water. Compared to the other beverages, it was still pretty bland.

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