Page last updated at 12:38 GMT, Friday, 15 January 2010

What does it take to become a bomb disposal specialist?

wire cutters

By Peter Jackson
BBC News

As the Army mourns the death of another bomb disposal specialist, what does it take to do this perilous job?

There is a fundamental principle in the bomb disposal game: never send a person to do a robot's job.

But in the theatre of war, the use of remote systems to shoot and destroy a device can all too soon become a luxury.

Inaccessible terrain, poor visibility or a shortage of time can restrict their deployment and leave that most treacherous of tasks to a lone, very human operative.

Bomb disposal
Maj Chris Hunter in reconstruction of defusing a radio-controlled IED
1. Latex gloves: ensures bomb is clean for later forensic examination
2. Emblem of ammunition technical officer
3. Canvas holdall: typical, so as not to arouse suspicion in public
4. Additional battery: provides extra power for detonation
5. Standard wire cutters
6. Mobile phone: receives detonation signal
7. Detonator: provides initial blast to explosive

Maj Chris Hunter has defused more than 60 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and thousands of conventional munitions in his 10 years as a counter-terrorist bomb disposal specialist.

"When you walk up to a bomb to neutralise it by hand, the adrenaline is flowing and you go into tunnel vision mode to try to dispel any fear you've got. Adrenaline helps," he says. "You've got to steady your breathing and can feel the drum beat of your heart of course."

The 36-year-old, who served in Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland between 1997 and 2007, compares his job to an "extreme game of chess".

He describes how the "sophisticated" bomb makers can lure you in with one device only to target you with a second.

"There's a tremendous sense of vulnerability… you're considering where they may have placed a second device and whether a sniper has you in his cross-hairs… you've got to think about all these possibilities."

There are broadly two types of bomb disposal specialist: Royal Engineers, who deal with conventional weapons, and those in the Royal Logistic Corps (RLC), who tackle the improvised devices.

Ask what they have in common, and you'll hear intelligence, a love of measured risk, and the ability to problem solve and be analytical and logical.

Operators go through a rigorous training schedule - five years for the RLC - to weed out those who cannot cope sufficiently with pressure.

Candidates undergo psychological and psychometric - intelligence and personality - evaluations and are only allowed to fail three of the 200 exams set.

'Every One Divorced'

As well as contending with exhaustion, heavy equipment, searing heat and post-traumatic stress, operators put immense pressure on their families.

Bomb disposal operator in minefield
Colin King at work in a minefield during the 1991 Gulf War

Maj Hunter, who has two children, says one difficulty is reintegrating back into society. When you have seen the mass carnage a bomb causes, he says, neutralising a device is one of the most gratifying things you can do.

"On the other hand you feel incredibly guilty," he says. "You're gambling with your own life and being a bad parent by putting the children and your family as a poor second."

There's even a joke within the profession that the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Regiment of the Royal Engineers stands for "Every One Divorced".

It's a gag that won't be wasted on Colin King, 47, from East Sussex. His 20 years as a bomb disposal specialist has put "great strain" on his family and marriage.

"My best friend [and colleague] was badly injured in Kuwait and I think that was very difficult for my family," he says. "My wife knew him and how good he was, he had done everything right… but a set of circumstances led to the accident.

"There was this awful realisation that no matter how good you are at your job, you only have to be unlucky once."

Flying fish

The officer, who commanded mine and ordnance clearance in the Falklands, says the mental strain becomes harder as he gets older.

"I don't ever become more casual, I'm constantly aware of how much I have to learn. With age I'm more aware of what can go wrong."

Cpt Daniel Read
Capt Daniel Read from 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Regiment, Royal Logistic Corps, died on Monday
Capt Read, 31, from Cornwall, had dealt with 32 improvised explosive devices

"Soldiers tend to feel invulnerable and I felt that way when I was younger, I didn't wear protective equipment."

Having experimented with explosives when he was a child, he was drawn to the job and has enjoyed the technical challenges.

"The risks are the ones out of my control. The biggest ones in my career were from other people who do dangerous, crazy, unpredictable things. I'm extremely careful who I work with."

On one occasion in Kuwait it was the unforeseen that nearly killed him. Iraqi troops had laid extensive mine defences on a beach with trip wires on stakes poking out of the water. After checking the wind speed and whether tree branches could fall, flying fish began jumping out of the water, forcing him to beat a "tactical retreat".

Soldier of 35 years and military historian Allan Mallinson says there has always been rivalry between the two bomb disposal corps, but among their fellow soldiers, nothing but reverence.

Bomb disposal duties grew out of World War I when the huge amount of explosives on the Western Front led to the first ammunition technical services. By World War II the need for mine detection had developed along with the disposal of enemy devices that emerged out of the technical expertise from the old Royal Army Ordnance Corps (ROAC).

The first teams were Royal Engineers, who dealt with any enemy devices which stood in the way of British troops, while the RAOC tackled friendly ammunition, Mr Mallinson says.

Then, as now, there is great reverence for anyone prepared to take on the job, says Mr Mallinson.

"They were hugely respected… there was applied intellect and cold courage of an order most of us knew we did not possess."

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