Sandia LabNews

Soldier, meet chemist: Sandia offers top-rate training for bomb experts heading to Afghanistan

The classroom chatter fell silent as 17 bomb technicians remembered four soldiers killed in Afghanistan while doing the same job they were being trained for during a weeklong training course at Sandia on how to spot, safely remove, and disable improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

Two EOD techs make their own homemade explosives so they can learn what chemicals are used in IEDs and be able to recognize them once they’re sent overseas. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

 “Be safe out there,” said Pete Terrill (5436), a retired Navy warrant officer, who knows first-hand the perils these Explosive, Ordnance & Disposal (EOD) technicians will face in the field. He served as a Navy bomb expert during the first Gulf War.

Pete oversees the training program at Sandia that aims to teach these young soldiers not only how to survive, but how to dispose of the chemicals and bombs that are the biggest threat to soldiers overseas and have killed thousands of civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq. The program is executed by centers 5400, 5900, 6600, and 4200 for the International Homeland and Nuclear Security Strategic Management Unit.

“I know what they’re going through because I did it,” Pete says. “But we never went to the national labs to train. I wish I had this kind of first-rate, top-of-the-line training available to me when I was on active duty.”

Others see the value of hiring scientists to help soldiers navigate the hazards they will face in Afghanistan. Since 2007, interest in the training program has grown from about 40 students to more than 400 students annually, says Dave Minster, manager of Energetic Threats and Training Dept. 5436 and a retired Air Force colonel. Funding has grown from about $2 million in fiscal year 2007 to about $7 million for fiscal year 2011.

The soldiers learn through hands-on chemistry courses and by winding their way through  a Middle Eastern-style adobe complex, a four-story tower that simulates an office building and a simulated underground clandestine explosives laboratory similar to what they might find in a warzone.

Most of those taking the courses are EOD techs from all four military branches — soldiers portrayed in the Oscar award-winning 2008 film The Hurt Locker. Increasingly, local law enforcement and security personnel want the courses, which can be customized for a wide variety of personnel, Dave says.

‘Fire in the Hole!’

In a recent training session for EOD techs, shouts of “Fire in the hole!” rang out across a firing range as fatigue-clad soldiers disabled simulated IEDs with PAN disruptors, tools developed at Sandia and used to disable bombs before they detonate. Sandia scientists monitor the activity from a nearby trailer containing a 46-inch computer screen that shows the soldiers colorful graphs indicating exactly what happened inside the explosive during the shot. The display tells them whether the IED was effectively disabled, whether it would have detonated, and how much time they had to spare.

During the firing, Pete moved among the EOD techs — a tight-knit community who train together — joining in their jokes and building rapport between them and Sandia.

Two days later, in a course that was designed after 9/11 and is taught by two Sandia researchers, the soldiers explored material chemistry to learn what substances are used in homemade explosives.

As the IED threat grew in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military sought out information about how these weapons and improvised explosives were made. Sandia, along with other national laboratories and companies, responded by developing its coursework, says Brian Melof (5434), one of the teachers and a national expert in homemade explosives.

Brian says the goal of the class is to help the soldiers recognize certain chemicals, processes, and equipment used to make explosives.  “It’s to get them to realize that a laboratory or a truck full of materials may have explosives implications. By going through the classroom and doing the hands-on processing, they now say, ‘Hey, if I see these chemicals in a certain context, I need to raise my awareness because an explosives operation either is in progress or could be in progress,” Brian says.

Another goal is to make the soldiers aware of the hazards of explosive materials and precursor chemicals, which are the chemicals and compounds typically used to make homemade explosives, so that they can safely handle them overseas, Brian says.

The Sandia instructors have the soldiers mix chemicals to teach them what ingredients insurgents might use to foil bomb sniffer dogs or what seemingly innocuous household devices may be used to process ingredients to make bombs.

By mixing the chemicals, soldiers can touch and smell the materials, the trainers say. Stimulating their olfactory senses in the lab might mean they’ll remember what they learned when they smell the same substance in an Afghani village, just as the smell of pumpkin pie might bring up dormant memories of grandma’s kitchen.

The soldiers also use various fluids to desensitize milligram quantities of explosive materials and then test them to see if they’re less sensitive to impact.

Field tests

The last day of the training ties everything together. The EOD techs enter a simulated Middle Eastern-style village where their guide, Vicki Chavez (6633), tells them there are reports of a nearby clandestine laboratory. Their job is to find the mock hazardous materials, figure out what the adversary was up to, and make the location safe, Vicki says.

The labs are hidden in a labyrinth of two-story adobe buildings, connected by rooftop walkways. They contain furnished living quarters and various shops stocked with goods. The goal is authenticity. The trainers want the EOD techs to encounter here what they will likely see in Afghanistan. They want them to recognize that things may not be what they seem, such as sacks of fertilizer that are not being used to grow crops, Christmas tree light bulbs may be improvised detonators, and cooking pots and steel coils may be an acid manufacturing operation.

“You can make some stuff with that,” one soldier, who asked not to be identified, says, looking at what appears to be an apartment, but has one room filled with laboratory equipment and substances in unmarked jars.

They discuss what’s there, then Vicki prompts: “There’s one thing you didn’t get,” and a soldier identifies another substance. Later, Vicki says the group was the only one among that week’s trainees to identify the last substance.

The EOD techs also enter a simulated underground clandestine laboratory where burlap sacks containing powdered chemicals, marked “Made in Jihad,” line the walls and jars of unidentified substances and equipment sit on a table next to a framed photograph of Osama bin Laden.

The EOD techs use a spectrometer to identify chemicals, while an instructor fires questions at them asking how sensitive certain powders are or how they would dispose of a caked material lying on black plastic garbage bags on the floor.

Diversified training

One soldier recalled the smells of the chemical labs two days before and instantly realized where the hazards lay.

Charles Price of Barksdale Air Force Base says Sandia’s training program is just one nationwide that he’s checking out to provide to the troops.

Price says Sandia’s training is diversified, with soldiers learning about firing devices to disable bombs, learning about homemade explosives, and working in a simulated environment based on the experiences of those who have gone before them from all four services. “Just the way it’s designed, it’s very fluid and they can change the curriculum,” Price says. “We share information and this is a good avenue to get it out to all the guys doing this.”

That exchange of information between scientists at Sandia and soldiers in the field helps Sandia’s training provide EOD techs with the latest information from the field.

“As people told us about it, we incorporated it into the training. This is something you may see and then a few months from now when they’re doing something different and we find out about it, we’ll put that in the class,” Brian says.

While it’s impossible to prove the class is keeping soldiers safer, Dave says they occasionally get emails from soldiers thanking them for the course and explaining how it helped them deal with what they encountered overseas.

“There’s no question in my mind that it’s helped soldiers,” Dave says. “We’re not doing this to make a buck; we’re doing it to save lives.” Pete says the training program is a team effort involving many organizations, including departments 5434, 5436, 5437, 5943, 5944, 6631, 6633, and 4218. He sees Sandia as a resource for the EOD techs long after they leave New Mexico.

“We’ve got plenty of smart people at the Labs, so we’ll get the answers for you,” Pete says. “These are their national labs; they can call back and get the information they need to stay alive and save lives.”