Two soldiers returned to Fort Riley Friday after three days in Austin, Texas, on a VIP mission to secure the area before a visit from President Barack Obama.
The men, 1st Lt. Alex Madden and Staff Sgt. Jason Hill, are members of a team that specializes in explosive ordnance disposal, or EOD.
Hill, an EOD team leader, has been on three other VIP missions, which once included searching luggage for Air Force One. This was Madden’s first VIP mission.
“The president requires EOD support whenever he travels,” Madden said. “It was our responsibility to find bombs, guns or other explosives that were staged.”
The Army is not the only military branch that offers EOD services to high-ranking governmental figures or civilians who need it; the Marines, Navy and Air Force also train and send their soldiers on similar missions nationally and internationally.
Even though the missions are complex and at times life-threatening, soldiers don’t always have a lot of time to prepare mentally or physically for the mission — which is why it is key for soldiers to perform well on their personal training tests and stay on top of their daily job tasks.
“The order comes down saying they need a team, and whoever is available and qualified goes,” Hill said.
Although Hill and Madden had roughly a week’s notice before they went to Austin, Hill said there were men who went on the mission who’d barely had a 24 hours notice. For an international VIP mission a soldier would ideally have three weeks’ notice.
Once the team arrived in Texas, it had “ample time to search thoroughly” throughout a high school where Obama spoke, and the surrounding buildings on the high school’s property, although they couldn’t specifically say how much time they’d spent securing the area before the president arrived.
“We were wearing nice civilian clothes but were doing hard work; there were points where we were streaming sweat and covered in dust, dirt and insulation,” Madden said. “We checked people’s bags, vehicles and buses. It was like every high-schooler’s dream come true to tear apart the principal’s office.”
The soldiers’ time in Texas wasn’t all work and no play. Once the president left the location, they were allowed to have free time until they departed for Manhattan. During their time in Austin the men had the opportunity to tour some local comedy clubs, try southern food and run into Lizardman.
“It’s fun work and nice to do what you’ve been trained for,” Madden said. “A lot of people describe it as a ‘good vacation’ from every-day work, and it is generally a reward to go on. If you’ve misbehaved or failed a personal training test, you won’t get asked to do VIP missions.”
To become part of the EOD team, both Madden and Hill went to Redstone Arsenal in Alabama for a 10-week EOD training program. That was followed by a nine-and-one-half month training program at Eglin Air Force Base in Florid, where the focus was on explosive units and safety, including conventional ordnance, bombs, missiles, chemical and nuclear weapons and how to deal with improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. What both men learned during training prepared them for VIP missions such as the one in Austin.
“When you complete training and come into the unit, you already know enough to be dangerous,” Hill said. “Additional training and certification was required to become a team leader.”
According to Madden, being EOD requires a long training course with pre-requisites that include getting a high score on the general mechanics portion of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, not being colorblind and being able to maintain top-secret clearance.
“You have to be willing to walk down on live IEDs, which can be somewhat scary,” Madden said.
EOD soldiers also respond to emergency calls on post or elsewhere when an individual finds a grenade or buried artillery rounds. Their job is to clear the area.
When EOD soldiers aren’t ensuring the safety of the president, they train using their robots and equipment, work with to increase soldiers’ proficiency, and conduct other war-related tasks.