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Fort Drum explosive ordnance disposal teams prepare for deployment

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FORT DRUM — The range was cleared; the charges were set. The call was issued.

“Fire in the hole! Fire in the hole! Fire in the hole!”

One by one, a series of C-4 explosives was set off, creating a piercing boom and sending dirt, sandbags and flames shooting at least 20 feet off the ground.

The controlled blasts were training for the 725th Ordnance Company, one of three companies on post under the 63rd Ordnance Battalion, which is responsible for clearing and reducing the risks associated with explosive materials found at home and overseas in areas such as Afghanistan. The battalion has eight companies, including four at Fort Stewart, Ga., and one at Fort Polk, La.

Wednesday’s session was a part of a weeklong training period for the company, which tentatively is scheduled to deploy this summer with soldiers from Fort Riley, Kan.

The training session was a test to minimize the damage created by 5 pounds of C-4 explosive to the structure of a hypothetical building and a cardboard cutout of a person standing by it.

Given an hour, four teams of about 10 soldiers each fortified their building walls — a thin wooden board — using shovels, sandbags and steel rods.

With the walls sustaining varying degrees of damage, 1st Sgt. Darrell G. Williams noted the trial-and-error nature of the training, and the challenge of moving from research on paper to the field. Looking at one wall that sustained extensive damage, he told the gathered soldiers to take lessons from their effort.

“Take it and put it in your pocket,” Sgt. Williams said. “You’re going to need it in a few months.”

During deployments, explosive ordnance disposal teams have the dangerous work of identifying and clearing explosive material.

“Even the most simple ordnance still has explosives in it,” said Maj. Andrew A. Bair, the operations officer for the 63rd Ordnance Battalion. “If you make even the smallest mistake, it can have the gravest consequences.”

While much of the teams’ work involves minimizing risk, Maj. Bair noted a common phrase among leadership.

“There is no safe procedure, just the least dangerous option,” he said.

Owing to the danger of their work, teams try to use robots to clear explosive devices when possible.

“If you can do it remotely, you do it remotely,” Maj. Bair said.

Enemy forces have resorted to crafty methods to conceal their improvised explosive devices, hiding them in places such as the carcasses of dead animals and in sidewalk pavement.

Soldiers also can be drawn to fake explosives, which sets them up for an ambush.

While at home, explosive ordnance disposal teams from Fort Drum are called out to help throughout New York and several surrounding states. In late March, crews were called to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to secure a Civil War-era cannonball that had been uncovered during a construction project. Other calls teams have received include the discovery of grenades in the belongings of dead war veterans.

Teams also help to clear undetonated shells from ranges on post and ensure the safety of crime scenes such as meth labs for area law enforcement agencies. Battalion soldiers also have helped with international humanitarian efforts, including a November 2011 project in Chad to teach safety tips to local de-mining teams.

For the soldiers of the 725th Ordnance Company, training is scheduled to continue for the next few days. Some soldiers will go through training in about 50 tasks, including operating a robot and risk mitigation, to qualify to become a team leader.

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