EOD: refining skillsets, cultivating fortitude

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Justin Todd

Explosives have been used for centuries, developing over the past few decades, becoming more complex and aggressive.

To protect its bases and assets, the U.S. Air Force trains an elite team of preeminent tactical and technical explosives experts—Explosive Ordnance Disposal. 

The 21st Civil Engineer Squadron EOD at Peterson Space Force Base, Colorado remains ready to support any of the nine mission sets of EOD, which include unexploded ordnance, counter improvised explosive device, weapons of mass destruction and nuclear response.

To come face-to-face with these events, the EOD develop their expertise through a rigorous curriculum of physical training, academic instruction and continuous hands-on practice with explosives.

Even after completing over a year of training, it is not over when EOD members arrive at their first duty station. There are over 300 training tasks and events to complete in order to be fully qualified and certified as an EOD team member—followed by continuous recertification to sustain peak mental and physical performance.

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. David Thomas, an EOD team leader at the 21st CES EOD, compared the level of training to a firefighter.

“Most people are generally running away from a burning building. These guys are running in,” Thomas said. “They’re not doing that blindly, just like we’re not doing this blindly. There’s a lot of training—very extensive training.”

This training prepares them for real-world operations that save lives. These operations often involve working with other agencies to synchronize response efforts.

In 2023, the 21st CES EOD finetuned this collaboration with FBI response team and local law enforcement in a joint training at the U.S. Air Force Academy—one of five military installations that the 21st CES EOD supports in the Front Range region, in addition to the Colorado Springs bomb squad.

“If they are to come across anything military related, a UXO for instance, they’re going to reach out to us, because that’s our expertise,” Thomas said.

Cheyenne Mountain Space Force Station, one of the five installations that the 21st CES EOD supports, is truly unique to any other EOD shop. The base is encased in a mountain, which offers additional challenges to EOD technicians.

“When you’re in there, you are essentially inside of a big cave,” Thomas said. “That very much changes the explosive effects, the damage that would be caused and how the energy is going to be transferred throughout all the different mediums there.”

Another one of the nine core mission areas that EOD supports in the Air Force is the Very Important Persons Protective Support mission set.

Most recently, the 21st CES EOD supported the Secret Service to protect President Joe Biden as he flew into Peterson SFB to speak at the 2023 USAFA graduation ceremony. They provided two direct support teams to secure Air Force One’s landing and assigned members to a dedicated standby team during the graduation.

The 21st CES EOD area of responsibility is not limited to Colorado though. In early 2023, two members of the 21st CES EOD team completed a nine-day U.S. Secret Service mission to Ghana, Africa, to conduct operations in support of the Vice President Kamala Harris.

“I think it was a great experience getting to go on this tasking to Ghana,” said Senior Airman Steven Nguyen, one of the EOD technicians assigned to this mission. “I got to work with the local fire department, the local police and the local military. I would’ve never had an opportunity like this if I wasn’t in EOD.”

However, this was not the first time the unit supported the vice president, as they also deployed in late 2021 for Vice President Harris’s trip to New York.

Looking back at the last few decades, specifically during the war in Afghanistan, a critical response capability for EOD was the counter IED mission set.

“The IED was the biggest threat during the Afghan War,” said Staff Sgt. Nicholas Logie, an EOD team leader for the 21st CES EOD. “A lot of EOD techs lost their lives over them.”

Airman 1st Class Matthew Seidler, an EOD technician from the 21st CES EOD, died from an IED explosion in Afghanistan in 2012.

“One of his team members was a good friend of mine that I went to school with,” said Master Sgt. Daniel Esselstrom, the 21st CES EOD noncommissioned officer in charge.

The EOD community is relatively small compared to other career fields, especially in the Air Force. This creates an additional bond between EOD members.

“It's a very big deal anytime we lose anyone, especially when it’s an EOD tag,” Thomas said. “It’s like it was one of my brothers or sisters that it happened to.”

 Despite the risk, the 21st CES EOD members said that they must trust their fellow EOD technicians with their lives. This creates a bond that some describe as family.

“When your coworkers are solely responsible for your safety, I think that that kind of forces a stronger bond between people,” Thomas said.

Just as the threats facing EOD develop and evolve, so do the members of the 21st CES EOD. They adapt to whatever scenario they encounter, ready to respond to any threat.

Multiple members of the 21st CES EOD agreed on one thing, when the time comes for action, they are ready.