SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas --
Master Sgt. Kyle Chandler looks over the newly arrived students at the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Preliminary Course, knowing this will be the hardest day most of them have ever experienced. It will be the last day in the EOD specialty for some as well. The 26-day course has a 45% average annual attrition rate.
Chandler is the Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge of the course. He and his staff of trainers and coaches will spend the next few weeks pushing the students to their physical, mental, and emotional limits before they move on to the Naval School Explosive Ordnance Disposal course at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.
As the students run, do multiple burpees, and bear-crawl through a mud pit, Chandler explains that these “smoke sessions” allow the instructors to assess the students’ emotional strength, physical fitness, and desire to be in the course.
“Our job here is to really prepare them for the following course at NAVSCOLEOD. It’s a joint course. That’s 143 training days. It’s hardest training in the DOD to get through,” Chandler says. “Can they handle the grueling pace of the training itself?”
Chandler notes that EOD technicians need to be exceptionally physically fit because of the rigorous conditions of the job. Not only must they carry heavy equipment and work in an 80-pound bomb suit, they are expected to integrate with special forces as necessary.
“We’re going to get wet. We’re going to get cold. It’s going to be stressful,” he says. “We’re expected to operate in any environment. Anytime. Because that’s the way war works.”
Chandler says that he and his staff have a holistic approach towards training which allows them to develop the students physically, emotionally, and behaviorally while teaching the soft skills that are necessary to develop their military career.
“EOD knowledge, you’ll get that later on,” he said. “I want to see how they can adapt and learn those concepts. Can they be part of a team?”
Instructor Staff Sgt. Westin Shular remembers what made him want to be a part of that team when he trains EOD students.
“I chose to go into it because at the time, the IED threat was big. I knew that was killing a lot of people and I was like, ‘Okay, how can I minimize those kinds of threats,’ and EOD was the easiest way to do that,” he said.
Although Shular has been in EOD for 11 years, he has had his training certificate for only three weeks.
“This is really weird being on the other side of the mud pit,” he says. “I’m used to being the kid who’s halfway drowning in the mud pit, getting yelled at to push harder even though I’m pushing as hard as I possibly can.”
Shular explains that the constant pushing forges a team. He motions to a set of tractor tires at the edge of the training sand pit.
“Can you pick up tires together? Those tires are heavy if one person tries to pick it up, but four people are on it and now it’s only 85 pounds that each person is lifting, which is not heavy,” he says. “Are you an asset or a liability to your team right now?”
The transition from 20 or so individuals to a tightly-knit team happens quickly under Chandler’s guidance. He watches week-three students assist each other with power lifting.
“One of the amazing benefits of this job is to watch that light bulb come on when you teach them something and they finally get it,” he says. “To build them up as a team and watch as their competence gets up, their strength gets up, their banter gets up. When they show up, they just don’t know how to talk to each other. But we watch them come together.”
The opportunity to help shape the future of EOD is one of the most satisfying aspects of working at the preliminary course for the staff.
“We put 100% of our energy into our students every single day. We want every single one of them to succeed. Because they’re our next generation,” Chandler says. “They’re going to be on our team when we get out of here, too”