Amid EOD Evolution, Fort Bragg Team Tops

Staff Sgt. Jason Fedak, assigned to the 722nd Ordnance Company (EOD), 192nd Ordnance Battalion (EOD), searches for explosives at the 52nd and 111th Ordnance Group (EOD) Joint Team of the Year 2016 competition, April 29, 2016. U.S. Army/Sgt. Ashley Marble
Staff Sgt. Jason Fedak, assigned to the 722nd Ordnance Company (EOD), 192nd Ordnance Battalion (EOD), searches for explosives at the 52nd and 111th Ordnance Group (EOD) Joint Team of the Year 2016 competition, April 29, 2016. U.S. Army/Sgt. Ashley Marble

It's a new age in Army EOD.

Following 15 years of war where the biggest threat to U.S. troops was improvised explosive devices, the Army's explosive ordnance disposal specialists are becoming faster, fitter and more agile to cope with emerging threats around the world.

The career field is changing, and the soldiers at the forefront of those changes were just named the Army's best.

Three soldiers from Fort Bragg's 722nd EOD Company won the 2016 Ordnance Corps EOD Team of the Year competition at Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia, last month.

The soldiers, part of the 192nd EOD Battalion also headquartered at Fort Bragg, competed in a week-long test of their skills against five other EOD teams from across the Army.

The soldiers navigated "stranded" troops through a minefield, investigated a homemade explosive lab and removed unexploded ordnance along with more traditional Army skills tests.

Their strength, they said, came from their preparation and their teamwork.

"We're a family," said Staff Sgt. Jason Fedak, the team leader. "I think a lot of teams -- they're a team at work and that's it. We don't. We share that from sun up to sun down, good, bad and ugly."

"We live in the moment, but every moment that we live is to be the best," he said. "We work out. We strive. We train. We train harder than anybody else. We don't take days off and it's paid off."

Fedak, Spc. Lauren Caldwell and Spc. Blake White comprised the winning team.

The soldiers have worked together for a little more than a year, but quickly bonded in the crucible of their training.

Their success highlights the ongoing evolution of Army EOD, where their unit, the 722nd EOD Company, is center stage.

Earlier this year, the unit became the first of two EOD companies to return to airborne status. Its soldiers, serving on the Global Response Force with paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division, are now tasked with deploying anywhere in the world on short notice.

If the 82nd Airborne or special operations forces have to jump behind enemy lines, EOD teams will now drift down in parachutes alongside them.

Col. Marty L. Muchow, deputy commander of the 20th Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, Explosives Command, said adding airborne capabilities to EOD forces was part of several adaptations underway within the community.

The force is fielding new equipment, such as streamlined body armor used by special operations forces, and has added an emphasis on fitness, with more physical training, ruck marches and strength training.

One of the most notable changes comes in how the EOD teams will operate.

Instead of being called to action in large, bulky armored vehicles as they did in Iraq and Afghanistan, EOD is becoming a more flexible and maneuverable force, focused on dismounted operations.

"We have learned valuable lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan that if EOD forces want to be relevant and an asset to the maneuver units and (special operations forces), we needed to get lighter equipment and in better physical condition," Muchow said.

The 20th CBRNE, based at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, is the operation headquarters and primary force provider for all CBRNE capabilities in the Army.

It's EOD specialists go through 37 weeks of training at Fort Lee, Virginia, before reporting to units based across the country.

That training also is changing.

"EOD forces learned that if you want to reduce the numbers of IEDs on the battlefield, we had to do a better job of collecting and exploiting the evidence recovered from the incident site," Muchow said. "We have greatly expanded our support to targeting of the IED networks and IED materials."

That means that instead of waiting to be called to the site of a bomb, troops are training to provide direct support to maneuver units.

"In the past, EOD forces were centrally controlled and consolidated," Muchow said. "We now embed EOD teams down to the maneuver unit company level. This has had several positive effects. First, EOD forces are co-located with the unit they support, which reduces response time and fosters an increased element of trust. Second, the EOD team leader becomes the EOD staff planner."

The EOD Team of the Year victory capped nearly a year of competitions and training for the soldiers. All three were first-time competitors and have been part of a team for just over a year, but they shared an uncommon drive for success.

"We all have the same dynamic: We never come to play to lose," White said.

He said the team trained every day, including weekends and in the middle of the night.

"It was stuff we would normally do," Caldwell said. "Just more of it."

They also credit their success to a support team that included several other soldiers within their company.

Spc. Carl Cole, Spc. Joshua Tapper and 1st Sgt. Michael Campbell were invaluable to the team's success, supporting their training and ensuring they had the time to focus on the competition. With the help of those soldiers, the team tried to anticipate what would be part of the competition, they said.

But in EOD, there is only so much they could prepare for.

"You can anticipate having or seeing an IED, but you still don't know how it's built and you still don't know how it operates so you still don't know how it's going to kill you," Fedak said. "So not only are you getting the best training in the world for all the teams that go, but you're seeing devices for the first time that you've maybe never seen before. You're getting a glimpse into a bomb-maker's eye that you would have never seen."

At times, the team works without talking, with a basic understanding of what each other needs to do and a underlying trust that each will do his job.

"I have to trust that these guys have my back at all times without question," Fedak said. "I have to believe that while I'm down on something they've got eyes on me. They're doing what needs to be done."

To win the EOD team competition, the soldiers had to be stronger and faster. They had to work together seamlessly and adjust on the fly.

In short, they were what Army leaders want the EOD force to be.

"It's the EOD to come," Fedak said. "We are completely changing the face of EOD. We're remapping what our capabilities are."

Muchow said the field must evolve or risk losing the advantage over the enemy.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the soldiers would respond to IED threats. But in a fight against a near-peer military force, they will need to be with maneuver forces, responding to attacks involving large quantities of ordnance and ensuring the force can move on the battlefield.

"The enemy and threat are constantly evolving. The best analogy is a game of chess," he said. "Every move we make, they make a counter. Every time we develop a new piece of equipment or technique, the enemy changes theirs to overcome our advantage."

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