EOD women dispose of threats

Women only 5 percent of the EOD career field

By Senior Airman Daniel Phelps
20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs 

SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. — Throughout history women have fought in war and on the battlefield. Deborah, the biblical prophetess, was so vital that the king of Israel would not go to war unless she came. Joan of Arc, the French peasant, led France to several key victories in the Hundred Years War before she was taken by the English and burned at the stake.

Even in modern times women continue to lead the way in combat. Maj. Gen. Margaret Hayward, Joint Forces Air Component Command commander, was in charge of the United Nations mandate to protect Libyan civilians and enforce the no-fly zone during Operation Odyssey Dawn.

Among those carrying on this timeless tradition are two Shaw female explosive ordnance disposal technicians. Women are only 5 percent of the EOD career field. They, too, armor up and go outside the wire to face danger alongside their male counterparts.

The main role of EOD technician is in the title: explosive disposal. The majority of their job comes while they are deployed, seeking out and responding to calls of improvised explosive devices and unexploded object.

As of Sept. 23, 2011, there were 53 female technicians out of the career field's 1,049, according to the Air Force Personnel Center.

Two of those 53 are stationed here and assigned to the 20th Civil Engineer Squadron, Tech. Sgt. Kim Mahan and Senior Airman Kristi Stubbs.

"The USAF EOD program is a very strong specialty, and the perspective and diversity our female Airmen bring with them has been vital to our success," said Chief Master Sgt. Robert Hodges, EOD career field manager, Tyndall AFB, Fla. "These warriors are standing side-by-side with their male counterparts, engaging in life-threatening missions, saving lives every day."

However, these women don't think about themselves as being different.

"There's no difference between the guys and the girls as long as you push yourself,"

Stubbs said, the 23-year old Baltimore native. "As long as you prove yourself, everybody gets a chance."

Mahan, wife and mother of two, said she's come across issues a couple of times being a female in the career field, but generally it's been when she's come across other cultures while deployed.

She would jump out of a truck as the team chief, and they wouldn't believe she was the one in charge.

"They just weren't used to seeing a female in a combat authority figure," Mahan explained. "Eventually, they warm up to you because you're good at your job. When ask them to do something, they go ahead and do it."

A few times Mahan has encountered guys who haven't worked around EOD women or have had bad experiences with them.

"I don't really care what people think or if they give me a hard time," Stubbs remarked. "I don't notice it. Maybe I just ignore it. Everyone has to go through the same school; everyone has to do the same job. Regardless of whether you're a female or how old you are or how well you PT, we all have the same job."

"We have to be able to ruck for miles and lift our EOD robot," Mahan agreed.

The robots are able to be thrown in the back of a helicopter or tactical vehicle with ease, and each consists of thousands of interlocking parts. They are primarily designed as a track vehicle with a retractable arm claw and camera, and are also capable of being armed with a grenade launcher or other infantry arsenals.

Whenever EOD detonates a bomb, the robot goes first.

On her most recent deployment, Stubbs had one overnight mission where her team trekked more than 13 miles round trip on a dismounted patrol.

A mounted patrol is when the EOD technicians head out inside of a vehicle, a dismounted is on foot, Stubbs explained. When dismounted you have to carry all of your gear, the robot, explosives and probably climb over some walls.

After getting back from dismounted patrols, Stubbs admitted she just wanted to collapse from exhaustion.

"If you don't keep yourself in shape and keep your training up to speed, your deployment will be a lot rougher than it needs to," Stubbs pointed out. "And deployments are a big part of our job, so it's obviously important."

These Airmen put their lives on the line whenever they respond to an IED call. Explosives have been the number one threat to coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, accounting for 7,800 deaths and casualties in 2010 alone, according to USA Today.

The time it takes to go from the installation to where an IED has been located or detonated can take minutes to hours, Mahan said. Occasionally, they'll also go out for route clearing packages, which can take four to six days of long work. Anything can happen in that time frame.

"A lot of EOD techs have been in gun fights, especially when they are dismounted," Mahan continued. "I'm pretty lucky I haven't."

The risks of stepping out to respond to an IED go beyond the small arms attacks. They have to watch where they move as well. Many have had their trucks hit by roadside bombs while driving, Mahan said.

On top of being physically fit, EOD technicians have to ensure they are mentally tough as well.

"You know what you're going out to do is dangerous," Mahan said. "As you're responding to an IED call, you know you might run into another one at any point along the way. And that's just when you're mounted. When you're dismounted, you're expected to do more and have less equipment."

Eyes have to be kept open when heading out on a patrol, especially when dismounted, Stubbs agreed. They stay off the foot paths and always watch for IEDs on the ground.

"It's safest to take the road less traveled," Stubbs said.

"Again, I've been lucky," she remarked. "I've had trucks in front of me or behind me hit, but never mine."

Once Stubbs was out on a patrol and a pressure plate detonation trigger was missed, Stubs recalled.

"A couple of us had just walked over it. Fortunately, someone found it before anyone stepped on it."

Even when they arrive at the location they are called to, the bomb disposers have to remain alert, Mahan said.

"We take several precautions," Mahan went on. "When you step out of your vehicle you have to make sure you aren't stepping on a pressure plate and look to see if there are any others that have been missed."

Every situation is unique, Stubbs added. Even if they are similar, they will still be slightly different.

"It's not good to just go on muscle memory when responding to an IED call," she continued. "Obviously it's there, but you have to keep an open mind to be able to change up procedures on the fly. This becoming clockwork can trip you up sometimes."

From the time we get the call, to getting to the scene and dispose of the explosive, our eyes have to be open and our minds alert, Mahan pointed out.

When en route to take out an IED you run through your mind what you and your team need to do, Mahan continued. This way everyone knows exactly what they'll do when arriving on scene.

Being downrange and hearing an explosion go off can be pretty stressful, Stubbs said.

"You hear it and you know someone might have gotten hurt and you are going to get the call soon and be the one to clear the area," Stubbs continued.

Whenever she heard it, the alarm would strike her to the core.

The high stress and danger of the job puts a strain on them, so EOD troops learn to trust and rely on each other as a family.

"The last time I was in Afghanistan, we were in en route to a forward operating base," Mahan described. "As soon as we rolled through the gate we were waved out of the convoy by some Army EOD guys we didn't know. They welcomed us with open arms."

The family mentality even carries over stateside, she continued.
"My husband always has a babysitter if he needs a break while I'm deployed. They'll also call him up and invite him out for guy's nights."

Losses become pretty personal since they see themselves as family.

"We all know people who have been lost," Mahan said. "Even if you don't know them, someone you know does. They are still your brothers. Each loss takes its toll."

About three years ago, a Shaw EOD tech Senior Airman Joshua Labott, was injured in Afghanistan combat, Mahan said.

"That was a pretty crappy day," she recalled. "We knew someone was hurt and someone else was killed, and were able to narrow it down to his team. It really sucks when that stuff happens."

Labott did survive his attack and earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star with a "V" for valor.

Stubbs lost a couple of guys from her flight and some others were injured.

"It was hard," she remembered. "I went through training with them. When it happens, you just lean on your team members and try not to think about it because there is still a mission to accomplish. You move forward and deal with it later."

Even with the risk involved in being EOD, these women are loyal to what they do.

"I don't think about the dangerous parts of this," Mahan explained. "I just do what I've been taught. I think about keeping my guys and those around me safe. At some point, it might catch up to me, but so far it's working out."

"What we do is a huge part of this war right now," Stubbs said. "I work to make sure I am up to speed to do my part in the fight so that others can rely on me."

Though her life is put on the line when she deploys, Mahan said she doesn't really think about that and it wouldn't be a reason for her to leave.

"Any thoughts of not reenlisting have mostly never been related to EOD," she explained. "The hardest time I've had questioning getting out was on my last deployment, and it was about missing moments with my new son."

Mahan boiled down the reason why EOD techs continue to do what they do.

"Disarming an IED and saving a truck full of lives is a pretty rewarding feeling," she remarked. "I keep doing this because I love my job and this family."

Then she added, "Plus, it's always fun to blow stuff up."