EOD technicians run toward deadly threats that others avoid, such as improvised explosive devices, and the cost of even a minor misstep could be loss of life or limb.
“There’s been times when I was standing over something that could kill me and I was there trying to picture all the choices I made in life that got me to that moment,” Marine EOD tech Master Sgt. Carlos Villarreal, who has been in the Marines for over 18 years, told Insider.
One of the most terrifying moments of Villarreal’s career in the military came during his first combat deployment as an EOD tech, when his team leader was killed responding to an IED in Afghanistan in 2011. His death shook Villarreal, putting the risks of the job into focus.
“He was one of the guys that we looked up to,” Villarreal said, recalling thinking at the time, “If someone as good as he was could pass away, what are my chances of getting through this?”
He pushed those thoughts aside though and did his job. He said the training he received from that gunnery sergeant and others is what got him back home alive.
‘If you think it’s going to blow up, don’t go down there’
EOD technicians are highly trained, with training programs lasting almost a year and covering a lot of vital information to not only do the job but survive it, but even with excellent training, the job is still challenging.
Sometimes explosives are complex. Sometimes a bomb is in a location that makes it difficult to manage, such as near a populated civilian area like a hospital or school. And sometimes it is not immediately clear there is a threat present until someone stumbles upon it.
“A couple times I’ve been right on top of an IED before I knew it,” Chief Warrant Officer 5 Michael Gaydeski, who has been an EOD tech for most of his 23 years in the Marines and who previously deployed to Iraq, told Insider.
“It’s always the one you don’t know about that’s going to get you,” he said. “I’ve definitely been one footstep away from stepping on something before I saw it. That’s definitely alarming.”
Both Gaydeski and Villarreal made it through their respective deployments, but not everyone does. They said the hardest part of the job is losing people, and Villarreal shared that he has lost friends, fellow EOD techs, to combat, as well as to fights with inner demons like post-traumatic stress disorder.
Every Marine EOD tech approaches the stresses of the job differently. Villarreal pointed to the tight, familial EOD community, explaining that EOD personnel “count on each other to get through those stressful times.” Gaydeski spoke positively about the EOD community as well, calling it the best part of the job, but added that his faith also helps him confront its challenges.
“I believe in God, and I believe he is in control. I believe I will die when he says I’m going to die,” he said. “I trust God, and I don’t find any stress in disarming bombs.”
“But don’t get me wrong. I’m a pretty careful individual, and I preach that to my guys,” Gaydeski said, noting that “there are always things you can do to mitigate the hazards of a situation.”
He said that EOD personnel have to be on guard against complacency, explaining that is “where guys in my field start to get hurt.”
Another important lesson he tries to drive home is caution, that “if you think it’s going to blow up, don’t go down there.”
EOD personnel have heavy protective armor commonly called bomb suits to shield them from smaller blasts, but they do not make the wearer invincible. If it is something like a vehicle-sized bomb, “all the armor in the world is not going to save you if you are right on top of it,” Gaydeski said.
The bulky bomb suit can actually be a hindrance in some situations because it limits dexterity and impacts an EOD tech’s vision. So in some dangerous situations, an EOD technician may be going in with only limited protective gear.
Gaydeski said that if he does not have a good feeling about something, he is not going down there. “I am going to use robotics or some other remote means to mitigate it,” he said, explaining there are usually, though not always, other options available.
‘You have to make a decision’
The Marine Corps EOD community consists of volunteers who came from other military occupational specialties. Gaydeski was an infantry Marine for four years and Villarreal was a communications technician before they joined EOD.
EOD appeals to different Marines for different reasons. Villarreal decided he wanted to be an EOD technician when he saw an EOD team in action during a deployment to Iraq.
“Watching those guys, their professionalism and their courage, made me want to lat[eral] move to that community,” he said, adding that he “wanted to be one of these guys that was moving toward the danger that most people were running away from.”
When Marines volunteer to work in explosive ordnance disposal, they are put through a screening process to make sure that they are suitable and then sent to EOD school at Eglin Air Force Base for training.
Probably the toughest part of the training, Gaydeski said, is a test that requires future EOD techs to combine and use all of the skills they learn in the program.
“An instructor will walk you up from a long ways away and say, ‘Okay, you see that there? That’s your problem.’ And that is basically all you get, that this is your problem,” Gaydeski said.
“They give it to you with a scenario, maybe like it is in a hospital or outside a school or something like that,” he said. “The reason for that is to make it so you can’t push the easy button and just blow it up.”
Regardless of whether it is a training scenario or real-world situation, the EOD techs have to approach it with the realization that their actions have consequences, but they can’t let that overwhelm them, letting caution lead to inaction.
“You have to make a decision,” Villarreal said, adding that “you have to be confident in your choice,” whatever that might be. “That is how you’re going to get through the day,” he said.
‘We’re never told what might have been’
Both Gaydeski and Villarreal are at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in North Carolina. Gaydeski is the uniformed officer in charge, running an EOD team tasked with emergency explosive response for the base and surrounding areas, and Villarreal is the staff non-commissioned officer in charge for the EOD section.
On combat deployments overseas, these EOD technicians attached to various units and primarily dealt with IEDs. Here in the US, they and their fellow EOD techs sometimes support local law enforcement, responding to local explosive threats that are at times quite different from what they saw in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gaydeski said that here in the US, they often get called out to respond to some sort of unexploded ordnance, however it turns up in eastern North Carolina.
It is not out of the ordinary for some sort of explosive to wash up on the beach after a hurricane, he said, explaining that “there is actually a lot of ordnance in the ocean.” He added that “cannonballs from Civil War and Revolutionary War battlefields are also more common than people think.”
Ryan Pickrell is a senior military and defense reporter at Business Insider, where he covers defense-related issues from Washington, DC.