Story by PO2 Anita Newman on 11/28/2018It's overcast, a balmy 75 degrees with high humidity at 7 a.m. on day two of explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) technician dive school aboard Naval Support Activity Panama City, Florida. Students, that are still wet from the 500-meter swim portion of the physical screening test (PST), are now covered in sand and sweat as they drop to complete another set of push-ups at Thor's Playground, a slightly wooded workout area. Spit and vomit drip from the mouths of new students as they are pushed beyond their limits. Sounds of birds chirping and insects buzzing are interrupted by motivation from what seems to be the entire instructor office.
"That first big day, day two PT, was a wake-up call," said Seaman James Harris, an EOD student. "You know it's going to be bad and when you get there it's way worse than you expected. Everything hurts more, the challenges are bigger, and the pressure is a lot more than what you expected."
EOD technicians locate, identify, render safe and explosively dispose of foreign and domestic ordnance including conventional, chemical, biological, nuclear, underwater and terrorist-type devices. This enables access during military operations in support of carrier and expeditionary strike groups, mine countermeasures, and joint Special Forces.
"The pipeline of an EOD technician is pretty extensive, long and grueling," said Senior Chief Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician Shawn Simmons, Naval Dive and Salvage Training Center (NDSTC) readiness department leading chief petty officer. "In total, if a student doesn't roll back, I'd say on average it's about a year to a year and a half pipeline from the day you enter Great Lakes to the day you graduate, and you're at your first mobile unit."
Students complete an EOD preparatory course at Great Lakes after boot camp, then a nine-week basic EOD diver course at NDSTC. After completion of the dive course, they attend basic EOD training for 41 weeks. During the final phase of basic EOD training, students complete basic airborne and EOD tactical training for a total of 55 weeks of training.
"You're never going to be comfortable in this pipeline," said Harris. "Physical preparation was taxing, but it was a straightforward plan work out [and] eat right. If you're bored, do something to get yourself in better shape. But it's hard to hone mental skill, because you don't know what you need to prepare for until you get there. So, it was just making sure everything I did, I was a little bit uncomfortable, because the more uncomfortable you get, the more comfortable you become being uncomfortable."
Though every branch has EOD, Navy is set apart by their ability to dive, said Simmons. Technicians can to go to a depth of 300 feet of seawater in this unique community.
"As an EOD tech, the ability to dive gives you the ability to integrate - that's why Navy EOD was the first EOD and the premiere EOD to integrate with Special Forces," emphasized Simmons. "We're a force-enabler. We embed with everybody."
Being physically fit, capable of swimming fast and performing well during the physical screening test (PST) is only part of the process to become an EOD technician. Instructors stress the students physically and mentally to prepare them for future experiences.
"There have been college swimmers that show up here," said Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician First Class Robert Zipperer, an NDSTC instructor. "You can tell that they've never been stressed in the aquatic environment. It shows whenever you add weight, a flooded mask, or put them underwater where they're not completely comfortable for longer amounts of time. All of that can stress someone, who on paper, may look like they're very comfortable in the water just because they can swim fast. Here at the school, we're looking to add that stressor. You don't [just] have to be able to swim fast, run fast or do a bunch of push-ups; you have to be able to do it when you're mentally taxed from hours of evolutions beforehand."
At the beginning of dive school, students learn to take one evolution at a time. As they progress, instructors teach them to see beyond what's in front of them, sharing thought processes and mentalities: to begin thinking four or five steps ahead to be prepared for anything.
"A lot of what the instructors are trying to do is stress you out," said Harris. "They want to see how you perform and react under stress. When they yell at you to push your face in the sand as you're crawling along they want to see you willingly follow what they are telling you to do even though it's going to hurt. They want to see if you can go back and fix the problem even though everything is already stressful and hurts. So, they're really evaluating whether you can overcome your stress and do the job that you're being asked to do."
Instructors are looking for mental toughness in each student, said Simmons. If the students can't be as mentally strong as they are physically, he emphasized, they will not last doing this job.
"We talk about a happy place.' [With] a lot of jobs, you're able to find that happy place and zone out," said Simmons. "Being an EOD tech, you don't have that option. We can't shoot at you here, blow you up, [or] put you in any real harm or danger."
The students are in a very controlled environment. Instructors apply pressure through time, yelling, and screaming - making them uncomfortable. This is how instructors see where a student's true character is.
"True grit and character isn't what it's like when the sun is shining and everything is going perfectly," continued Simmons. "True grit and character is when everything is wrong and you still have to be able to do your job."
Instructors work to instill a sense of urgency, to think clearly under stress. They try to foster a mentality of pride, teaching students their job is not always going to be fun, and it won't be easy.
"They need to be able to dig down, figure out where the grit is and go," said Simmons. "I would be lying to you if I said I wanted every single student here to make it through; that's not really true. I want the best students to make it through to feed the community. The community needs good Sailors, good EOD technicians to keep it going. We don't necessarily want people to quit, but what I don't want is someone learning that this isn't for them, or they're going to quit at the wrong time. The wrong time is in the middle of a firefight or if somebody gets blown up, or when they're diving an MK 16 (a re-breather) on a mine. That's the wrong time to quit, because you're going to hurt yourself or somebody else. You're just going to make the situation a lot harder than it needs to be."
The mentality to not quit once a part of the community is driven by the rigorous training endured for weeks on end. Zipperer elaborated this physical side of training is meant to prepare students for how they are going to get to their jobsite once they get to the fleet. Once the technicians get to the job they have to be coherent and make sound, clear decisions.
Grit, toughness and selflessness are just a few of the traits that describe this community. These characteristics not only define the member but contribute to the unique community's set of highly valued qualities creating what some describe as a brotherhood.
"I stay because of the guys to my left and right - the brotherhood - and no matter where we go, whenever we get there, we're automatically welcomed into a family," said Zipperer. "There's no time period where you're trying to get to know people. You show up, and everyone's willing to help you out."
Simmons echoed the same sentiments of the brotherhood, which includes a handful of women.
"I love my community, [and] this is the best community in the Navy, hands down," said Simmons. "I've been on the air crew side, fleet side, carriers, small boy, I've worked with SEALS, ODA (Operational Detachment Alpha). We're small, but it's more than that. It's the fact that any single EOD tech would put his or her life on the line for another. To give back to a community like that is an impossible task."
In the end, the EOD community is not only highly unique for their skill set and training but also known for their unbreakable bond to one another and their commitment to complete what many would believe to be impossible tasks. As potential EOD technicians push themselves past normal physical and mental barriers, they knowingly commit themselves to a community unlike any other.