(Editor's note: This story comes from JM Simpson, a longtime journalist who has spent years covering everything Joint Base Lewis-McChord. His work is also available at northwest.militiary.com)
SSgt. Christopher Phelps got down on his hands and knees and carefully looked over a 81mm mortar shell, which was positioned near an Afghan farmer's barn.
The soldier from Fort Campbell, KY, had a tough challenge.
Phelps had to verify the ordnance, devise a plan and lead his team back to build a sandbag barrier around the shell, explained Maj. Matt Kuhns, operations officer, 3rd Ordnance Battalion, Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Then, he had to destroy it without damaging the wall of the barn, which sat 20 yards away and was represented by a plywood wall. If the protective barrier failed – if Phelps made a mistake - shrapnel from the exploding shell would damage the plywood.
Triggering a small, electrical charge, the mortar shell was destroyed. There was no damage to the plywood. Phelps and his team had succeeded.
“The point here is to use intense, real-world training scenarios to help identify potential team leaders,” Kuhns said.
Assigned to the 49th Ordnance Battalion and stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Phelps was one of 24 soldiers taking part in a Team Leader Training Academy hosted at Joint Base Lewis-McChord this week.
The TLTA utilized intense, real-world exercises to help identify and select future team leaders within the explosive ordnance community.
For the first time, Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 3rd Ordinance Battalion (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) hosted the 20th Support Command’s (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and High Explosive, or CBRNE) training.
Providing support were soldiers from the Lewis’ 555th Engineer Brigade, the 4th Stryker Brigade and the 110th Chemical Battalion.
Soldiers from around the country participated. They took on 12 different training exercises centered on responding to events in Afghanistan, Libya and the United States.
“We’ve learned a lot from Afghanistan; we put this training package together when Libya was in the news; and we are also responsible for working within the country should a threat be discovered,” Kuhns explained.
“We have to be aware of a lot, everywhere.”
Further down the training range, a medium-sized car served as a VBEID, or vehicle borne improvised explosive device.
Smoke had been seen coming out of the trunk in a metropolitan area. Officials were alerted and an explosive ordnance soldiers from JBLM and FBI agents were called to the scene.
“We’ve got to be able to work in a joint effort with a lot of agencies,” Kuhns continued.
Sgt. Daniel Cummings, 63rd Ordnance Battalion, Fort Drum, NY, finished climbing into a bomb suit and headed toward the car.
“He’s got to check out the vehicle, place a small explosive in it and destroy it,” Capt. Bryan Sand, 759th Ordnance Battalion, Fort Irwin, CA, pointed out.
“He also has to be able to improvise should the situation call for it.”
Once Cummings returned, a small explosion blew the front door open on the vehicle.
“These soldiers are super,” Lt. Col. Frank Davis, commander, 3rd Ordnance Battalion, commented.
“These young soldiers have an opportunity to learn critical lessons from the very best in the explosive ordnance community.”