Attrition: Bomb Squads Are Fading Away


June 3,2008: The U.S. Department of Defense is having a hard time keeping its EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) units up to strength. There are only a few thousand of these specialists, and they have suffered a higher casualty rate (about twice as much) than the infantry over the last five years. These are the guys who go out and deal with roadside bombs that have been discovered. Actually, army and marine engineers also fill in, at least on the simple cases (where the bomb is obvious and you can just send a robot out to drop off an explosive to destroy the bomb). But it's always preferable to have the EOD specialists do it, because that gets the job done more quickly, with fewer casualties.

The problem has always been that EOD guys who have twenty years service, can retire on half pay, and take a safer, but similar, civilian job, and make more than they made while in the uniform. Many of the most experienced EOD operators, who can retire, are under pressure from their families to do so, so daddy can stay home, be safer and make more money. It's a hard deal to turn down.

To encourage these veteran EOD experts to remain in uniform a little longer, someare being offered them bonuses of up to $25,000 a year, for re-enlisting for up to six years. The most senior EOD specialists are offered a $20,000 bonus for one year.

In peacetime, EOD technicians do stay in one place for long periods, and don't undergo much more risk than do civilian EOD teams. But because of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, navy and air force EOD personnel have been going there to help out the army and marine EOD teams. Thus all Department of Defense EOD personnel are exposed to higher casualties and more time away from the family. Retiring at twenty begins to look very attractive. The cash bonuses alone are not what keeps a lot of these veteran sailors in, but also the gesture the bonus offer represents.

The high casualties have also made it more difficult to recruit new EOD technicians. That's despite the increasing signing bonuses for qualified recruits. In the last six years, that bonus (at least for the U.S. Navy) has gone from $8,000 to $40,000.

The training is long and the work is dangerous. The higher casualty rate is no secret. That is not a totally negative thing, because EOD always attracted the adrenaline junkies, who were skilled and disciplined enough toget through the training. But these guys can just join the infantry or marines and get all the thrills they can handle, but at much less risk of injury.

In peacetime, EOD is a better gig than the infantry, but it looks like it might be a while before there is peace, and EOD has to figure out how to get their recruiting numbers up. Lowering standards is not an option, because that just drives up casualties, and ruins the morale (and reenlistment rates) of the people you already have. The Department of Defense won't discuss exact numbers, but there is an increasing amount of activity devoted to recruiting more EOD operators, and keeping the ones they already have.




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