RAVEN’S CHALLENGE
Explosive Ordinance Disposal Trains at Fort Lewis

Story & Photos by Sgt. Emily Suhr   -   Posted June, 2008


             A green Navy truck approaches a group of soldiers impatiently standing guard in the middle of the street.  The truck stops and a group of sailors wearing helmets and flak jackets quickly emerge from the vehicle.  The team fans out and begins a hasty search of the immediate area.  Chief Petty Officer Charles Smith, from the Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 11, hoists himself up on a wall to get a view of the other side.

Maj. Michael Slevin from the 741st EOD BN surveys the damage done by a boot banger, a device used by EOD technicians designed to mitigate the impact of an IED, during Raven’s Challenge on Fort Lewis, Wash. March 28, 2008.Maj. Michael Slevin from the 741st EOD BN surveys the damage done by a boot banger, a device used by EOD technicians designed to mitigate the impact of an IED, during Raven’s Challenge on Fort Lewis, Wash. March 28, 2008.

            “Avalanche!” he screams, a code word used by his unit meaning explosive device.
The four-man team rushes back into their vehicle and quickly pull away.  The soldiers follow suit.  Moments later an earsplitting pop is heard and white powder fills the air.   The team, now in a safe location, interviews the soldiers who were guarding two disabled Army vehicles left unsecured over night in a hostile area.  Four more bombs will be discovered before the exercise is complete.

This is just one of the many scenarios participants of this year’s Raven’s Challenge faced on Mar. 29, 2008.

            Raven’s Challenge is an impressive training event held every year for military and civilian members of Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) units from the Northwest region hosted by the 741st Ordnance Battalion EOD, Washington National Guard.

             Washington National Guard, active Army and Navy EOD units joined civilian law enforcement from Washington, Oregon and Canada on Fort Lewis, Wash. for four days to exchange information, techniques, equipment and training.

Sgt. 1st Class J.D. Wilson of the 741st EOD BN and Members of the Tacoma Police Department watch a monitor connected to the EOD robot’s camera, which is used to inspect and remove IEDs during scenario training for Raven’s Challenge on Fort Lewis, Wash. March 29, 2008.Sgt. 1st Class J.D. Wilson of the 741st EOD BN and Members of the Tacoma Police Department watch a monitor connected to the EOD robot’s camera, which is used to inspect and remove IEDs during scenario training for Raven’s Challenge on Fort Lewis, Wash. March 29, 2008.

            Vendors kicked off the event with demonstrations and training on the latest technology in robots, bomb suits, dynamic disruptors and counter vehicle bomb charges.  The various EOD entities were then able to try out new devices and share techniques and equipment with each other.   Simulated bombs were planted in vehicles, backpacks, boxes and barrels.  Units attached devices meant to disrupt, or disable, the simulated explosives.  Devices ranged from Boot Bangers to modular large vehicle disrupters to water charges.   Many unit members were able to learn about devices they had never seen before.

“It gives a lot of us training that we don’t normally get,” said Pat McCormick, an 18 year veteran of the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department Bomb Squad.  “Usually when we do our training it’s within our own agency only, so we can get somewhat stale in certain things.  But when we’re involved with things like this, it broadens our spectrum of training.”

Participants spent two days in Leschi Town, a realistic training area on Fort Lewis, designed to look like a town complete with a school, church, courthouse, and even a playground.  Throughout the exercise, bomb units were dispatched to various locations each posing a different scenario.  Some scenarios included: a woman who strapped a bomb to herself, a strange box found in the church, a man found dead with a strange device strapped to him and dynamite near by, a vehicle abandoned with a suspicious package inside, a hostage wired to an explosive in the basement of a building, roadside bombs and so on.  The bomb squads deployed robots, donned bomb suits, and devised innovative ways to combat the problems.  The scenarios were set up by different EOD entities than those trying to solve it, giving the units more diverse training. 

Chief Petty Officer Charles Smith, from the Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 11, searches for IEDs during scenario training for Raven’s Challenge on Fort Lewis, Wash. March 29, 2008.Chief Petty Officer Charles Smith, from the Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 11, searches for IEDs during scenario training for Raven’s Challenge on Fort Lewis, Wash. March 29, 2008.

“By working together we can learn some of the techniques that the police have and vice versa,” explained Lt. Col. Brennan Phillips, commander of the 741st Ordnance Battalion.  “What tends to happen is your police bomb technicians tend to be older, they tend to have been in their jobs for quite a while.  Our military EOD technicians are younger, but with a lot of battlefield-type experience from Iraq.  Getting those two groups together can be quite beneficial.”

Sgt. 1st Class Adam Matuska, the operations sergeant for 741st, set up a scenario for the Tacoma Police Department Bomb Squad involving a suspicious package inside a van.  The team decided to deploy a device called a Boot Banger. 

“A Boot Banger is a brief case sized container that contains a ratio of explosives and water that is used to disrupt a larger type of device, i.e., car bombs.  Water disruption is a useful technique in our field because water does not compress, it’s a great ripping tool,” explained Matuska. 

When placed underneath a vehicle, the Boot Banger will literally rip open the vehicle using water, allowing the EOD technicians to remove explosive devices without them detonating.  Matuska felt a personal connection with that particular scenario.  While serving in Baghdad on Sep.14, 2005, he responded to a suicide bomber whose vehicle failed to detonate after ramming into a U.S. tank.  With the driver still trapped inside alive, Matuska was concerned about a secondary trigger so he sent a robot out to place the Boot Banger under the vehicle. 

Chief Petty Officer Charles Smith, from the Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 11, searches for IEDs during scenario training for Raven’s Challenge on Fort Lewis, Wash. March 29, 2008 as SSG Roy Day from 319th EOD looks on.Chief Petty Officer Charles Smith, from the Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 11, searches for IEDs during scenario training for Raven’s Challenge on Fort Lewis, Wash. March 29, 2008 as SSG Roy Day from 319th EOD looks on.

“The Boot Banger functioned as designed and kicked the explosives out of the vehicle without a high order detonation” said Matuska. Once they received clearance they went down range and removed all the explosives.  “We pulled out projectiles, propane tanks full of homemade explosives, land mines, grenades, det cord, projectile fuses, and in total it was around 400 lbs of explosives in that car,” said Matuska, who works for the National Guard full time.  “Earlier that day there were 11 other car bombs that detonated in Baghdad killing over 250 people and this was the twelfth one, fortunately we were able to render it safe.”

Raven’s Challenge is specifically designed for different EOD teams to learn and benefit from other’s experiences.

 “There’s a lot to be learned from both sides. It’s a small community, we need to kind of stick together, and work together and train together,” said Phillips.

“If we just train ourselves within a small group, that has limited benefits, but by getting 50 or 60 bomb technicians together… we also have subject matter experts in from homeland security, ATF and different agencies here to help out- we can really expand what our soldiers are learning,” added Phillips, a traditional Guardsman who works full time as an ATF bomb technician in Seattle.

The training went beyond explosives.  Constables Darren Hall and John Roberts from the Vancouver  Police Department in British Columbia, gave classes on how to fight in confined spaces, such as hallways or doorways, and how to clear non-combatants from tight spaces.   While they provided valuable training, they also benefited from the experience.

“What they get to see is a different way of doing things. They get to see the bigger picture and it’s our opportunity to assist in the ongoing operations overseas,” said Departmental Sergeant Major James Pearson of the Vancouver Police Department.  “The Army fights the battle off our shores, we fight the battle on the shore, within our land.  It doesn’t matter what color uniform you’re wearing, we’re all fighting.  We all have our part to do.”

A bomb technician from the Peirce County Sherriff’s department assembles a water disrupter designed to mitigate the impact of an IED during Raven’s Challenge on Fort Lewis, Wash. March 28, 2008.A bomb technician from the Peirce County Sherriff’s department assembles a water disrupter designed to mitigate the impact of an IED during Raven’s Challenge on Fort Lewis, Wash. March 28, 2008.

            Four years ago when the 741st Started Raven’s Challenge, they had new people with little experience and equipment, but they knew how to utilize Fort Lewis and Leschi Town, so they invited people who could help them out, said Phillips.

“Initially this started out as a way for us to leverage training materials, knowledge, tools; to help train our own EOD folks,” said Phillips.

The training has paid off.

“319th successfully went off to work in Baghdad and were extremely successful.  A lot of things they learned during this exercise they utilized on the battlefield,” said Phillips.

This is an exciting event where veteran bomb technicians can offer experience to young soldiers and young soldiers can teach veteran bomb technicians about techniques used in war.  It’s an event where top defense vendors can display the latest in technology and military and civilian technicians can gain invaluable training.

As military units continue to deploy worldwide and law enforcement agencies continue to battle criminal elements, there will continue to be a need for Raven’s Challenge.