EOD prelim helps tech school attrition rate
It's amazing what a difference a year can make in the technical training world.
The 366th Training Squadron Field Training Detachment 3 here is reaping the benefits of better-prepared Airmen attending Naval School Explosive Ordnance Disposal, with the overall Air Force attrition rate down 16 percent after the overhaul of the service's Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) preliminary course last year.
On a typical school in-processing day, Lt. Col. Jerry Sanchez, 366th TRS Detachment 3 commander, and Chief Master Sgt. Al Schneider, 366th TRS Detachment 3 superintendent, sit down with the new Air Force EOD candidates to discuss the pathway to success at the school and in the career field.
Sanchez, who has been in the EOD career field since 2001, and Schneider, with 22 years wearing the coveted "Crab" function badge signifying membership in the exclusive EOD community, try to convey to the students that graduation from the preliminary course is just the first step in a long journey into becoming fully-qualified EOD technicians.
The second step is attending NAVSCOLEOD, which is responsible for educating students on recovery, evaluation, rendering safe and bomb disposal operations. Students from all United States' military services, partner nations and other high-risk governmental agencies attend the course.
To graduate from the Joint EOD/Common Core course, consisting of 143 academic days in the sometimes unrelenting humidity of the Florida panhandle, takes every ounce of self-discipline the students can muster.
"There are no bad days here," Sanchez said. "With the schedule being what it is, all of our students have to come in here from day one and be disciplined from the start. Those are the people who are successful here."
Getting through NAVSCOLEOD and actually earning the right to wear the "Crab" is not for the faint of heart. During fiscal year 2011, the school's attrition rate was 42 percent across the four services, with a capacity 1,700-plus students. For the Air Force alone, the attrition rate was 53 percent.
Historically, 42 percent of Air Force candidates have not completed the demanding course over the last 13 years, with the service carrying the highest attrition percentage rate amongst the four services in 11 of those years.
"These high attrition rates were the main reason the Air Force decided to change the EOD preliminary course from a six-day, mainly academic course, into the current 20-day version," Sanchez said. "They added a challenging physical fitness program and hands-on practical exercises to the curriculum to go along with the academics. We are now able to see the whole package as far as candidates go before they even arrive here."
The course length and need for a larger training area sparked the course's location move from Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio to a sprawling new training complex at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas, in May 2011.
Since last June, when the first revamped preliminary course graduates started arriving at NAVSCOLEOD, Air Force academic washouts fell 41 percent. Self-eliminations from the school also fell, from 33 percent before the new preliminary course to just six percent a year later.
"They (EOD candidates) are much more aware of what they are getting into on the combat side of the house, the missions they will be running and who they will be working with," said Staff Sgt. Daniel Sepsey, EOD instructor in the demolitions division. "They come here with a lot more confidence."
So far, the early return numbers indicate the changes made to the preliminary course at Sheppard have made a huge difference in the overall Air Force attrition rate at NAVSCOLEOD.
"We've seen very positive results based upon what they are doing," said U.S. Navy Capt. Joseph Polanin, NAVSCOLEOD's commanding officer. "The (Air Force) has improved the rigor of (the prelim course), improved the realism of it, improved the relevance of it. It's been outstanding...the results have been highly successful. It's been outstanding."
Perhaps the most telling stamp of approval has come from where it matters most, the EOD field units themselves.
"I get most of my feedback from the field," Schneider said. "The field units call us and ask us what we're doing here because these (students) are arriving and are ready to go."
According to Polanin, the Air Force, Navy and Army are studying the best practices from all three service's preliminary courses to determine best practices for possible inclusion in all the preliminary programs.
One of those best practices will likely revolve around the Air Force preliminary course's physical fitness program.
"The Air Force course at Sheppard is very, very intense, when it comes to physical preparation, teamwork and team building," Polanin said. "I think that's one of the best practices that's going to come out."
Polanin also addressed the quality of academics at the Air Force preliminary course.
"It's not just the quality of physical readiness, which has improved substantially, but also the quality of academic readiness," he said. "The Airman who arrives here at EOD school is better prepared, better qualified and has a greater potential for success."
One of the major reasons the Air Force preliminary course has been successful in turning back the tide of attrition is the dedicated instructor staff.
"They (Sheppard instructors) emphasize the EOD mission and what it takes to be an EOD technician," Sanchez said. "They emphasize the teamwork, the leadership, the physical fitness. This job is not for everybody, you really have to want it. If you don't, you're not going to be successful...They make our job a lot easier on this end."
From the student perspective, the lessons learned at the preliminary course ring true as the students navigate the NAVSCOLEOD curriculum.
"I feel the whole time at Sheppard was important," said Airman 1st Class Scott McDonough, who graduated from the Air Force's EOD preliminary course last December, and is on pace to earn his "Crab" in August. "They get you very ready physically and they try their best to get you ready mentally for the short time they have you."
With quality instruction at both schools, the big difference between the preliminary course and NAVSCOLEOD is the length of the course.
"When you're at Sheppard, its only 20 academic days," McDonough said. "Here you're looking at eight or nine months...there are so many hurdles...highs and lows, trying to stay motivated. It's tough, but all the instructors remind you every day how great this job is."
The detachment cadre's experience in combat operations, including 26 Air Force Combat Action medals, 25 Bronze Stars, 18 Army Combat Action Badges and two Purple Hearts, along with the realistic environment and hands-on teaching methods, ensures the training experience is second-to-none.
"Our instructors have over 57 years combined combat time in Iraq and Afghanistan," Sanchez said. "Nothing is more important than having that experience and passing that on to our students."
The fact not just anybody can make it through this demanding regimen is what makes the brotherhood of the EOD community so appealing.
"This is more than a 9-to-5 job...this is a way of life," Schneider said. "If you don't love what you're doing, if you are not totally dedicated to this mission, you will fail. These Airmen are ready to go."
"I knew I always wanted to make a difference," McDonough said. "I want to get trained up so I can go overseas...the adrenaline rush, the challenges every day, it's a problem-solving job...I love it."
McDonough, on the door step of graduation into the EOD operational world, insists the key to success is simple.
"Stay motivated and stay focused," McDonough said. "Keep everything outside of school and EOD out of your mind. The dedication is the biggest thing. You're about to learn some of the coolest stuff you will ever experience and meet some of the greatest people too."
The 782nd Training Group, which falls underneath the 82nd Training Wing, conducts technical training in telecommunications, aircraft systems, avionics, civil engineering, fuels and vehicle operations for more than 13,000 students annually.
Editors Note: This is part of a series of articles highlighting the 366th Training Squadron Field Training Detachment 3, based at Naval School Explosive Ordnance Disposal, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. The detachment is part of Air Education and Training Command's 782nd Training Group, headquartered at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas.
Article by Dan Hawkins, 82nd Training Wing Public Affairs