From the Frontlines - EOD: Concentrated under stress

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. -- As hundreds of bullets, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars engulf a platoon of Marines, one man keeps his focus while disarming an improvised explosive device.

That man is Senior Airman Robert Sutton, 509th Civil Engineer Squadron, explosive ordinance disposal journeyman.

Sutton disarmed bombs while deployed to Helmand Province, Afghanistan, from September 2012 to March 2013. While embedded with a Marine unit, Sutton was a key member of his deployed team.

"My job was route clearance for most of the missions I went on," Sutton said. "Myself and three other EOD team members were driving in front of a convoy, clearing the path for them to keep them safe from IEDs."

If Sutton and his teammates saw something that looked like a bomb buried in the sand, or they found something with their EOD robot, they neutralized the threat immediately.

"Driving the robot was my most important job," Sutton said. "The robot helps keep IEDs at a safe distance in case they blow up."

After discovering an IED, Sutton and his team would dispose of the explosives by blowing them up and then pick up the remaining debris for evidence.

Most of the bombs he discovered were home-made, triggered by compression and motion, Sutton said.

"Since insurgents like to keep their bombs simple and cost-effective, the bombs were mostly pressure plates designed to explode as the truck rolls over them," Sutton said. "They were mainly targeting our vehicles and didn't focus as much on troops on the ground."

Sutton said that pressure-plated bombs caused negative effects not only for U.S. forces, but also for innocent civilians.

"Unfortunately, sometimes the bad guys get their civilians, too," Sutton said. "The weapons are so sensitive that if a child on a bike rides by, the bomb could go off. We're trying to stop them because they're taking risks like that."

Sutton said that if his EOD team was not embedded with the platoon, then the Marines would have had to sit and wait for hours or days for a team of trained technicians to come from the main base to disarm an IED every time they discovered one.

"The Marines integrated us in because they're short on EOD specialists," Sutton said. "Once they find an IED, they don't have the training on the procedures to take. So with my EOD team helping out, we were able to neutralize threats on the spot, allowing the Marines to move forward with their mission."

A typical day for Sutton included waking up at 4:30 a.m., eating chow and working 12-, sometimes 16-, hour shifts.

"Sadly enough, I spent the majority of my days riding in a Humvee at two to five kilometers per hour, literally clearing each foot of the road," Sutton said. "On some days I spent 15 or 16 hours just sitting in a truck wearing body armor thinking to myself, 'I can't believe I'm doing this.'"

Sutton said aside from the monotony of sitting in a truck in the middle of nowhere for hours, the stress of disarming an IED made his days more interesting.

"Every time you go outside the wire, it's always stressful because you never know what's going to happen," Sutton said. "Whether you're in a truck or on the ground, you're still miles from any help."

Sutton said not having to worry about terrorists constantly working to kill him and his teammates is one of the big differences between being deployed and being stationed at Whiteman.

"A large portion of what we do at our home station includes training to prepare for deployments," he said.

Sutton's mission at Whiteman also includes supporting aircraft on the flightline with repair for various munitions the jets carry.

"We're always on standby to fix issues that occur with explosives carried by aircraft," Sutton said. "For example, if an A-10 Thunderbolt has a jammed gun, then it's our job to safely remove it so it doesn't fire."

Sutton said another big difference between being at home and being deployed was the quality in food.

"The thing I missed the most about being in the U.S. was really good Mexican food," Sutton said. "All we ate while I was deployed was chow hall food and Meals, Ready to Eat."

He also had to deal with the 10.5-hour time differential between Afghanistan and Missouri.

"I had to wake up either really early in the morning or make phone calls late at night just to speak to friends and family," Sutton said. "The ability to call someone in real time is a luxury."

Overall, Sutton said the sense of knowing Marines were safe from IEDs and the joint-force brotherhood he built with the Marines were memories he will never forget.

"Sutton was anxious and chomping at the bit to put to use the skills he had been training on for three years," said Master Sgt. Robert Randall, 509th CES EOD flight superintendent. "He was able to get out there and make a difference on the battlefield."