Stored in a closet inside one of the buildings at the Texas A&M Riverside Campus are more than 400 different types of ordnance ranging from simple grenades and landmines to full-fledged rockets and bombs. The weapons span an expanse of time dating back to the American Civil War and have found their way into this closet from around the globe – from China to Italy and from Russia to the United States. If detonated, these deadly weapons had the potential to reduce the building to smoking rubble. Fortunately, the ordnance housed in this special closet have been deactivated, a highly specialized skill that is taught in that very same building.
The Unexploded Ordnance program (UXO) is run by the Texas Engineering Extension Service (TEEX), part of the Texas A&M University System. One of the goals of this unorthodox educational institution is to create a realistic learning environment for students without putting them in any real danger. In addition to the ordnance closet, students work in an artificial but realistic minefield and with state-of-the-art x-ray equipment. Among other real-world scenarios, UXO students will get to experience sprinting down a hallway in a bomb suit that weighs almost 100 pounds.
Started in 1999 by former TEEX staff, Paul Irkhe and Rex Shipp, the program’s history is as unique as the skills it teaches. “The Ogallala Sioux up at the Badlands Bombing Range were the first students to go through the course,” says Ed Fritz, a retired U.S. Navy EOD Technician and the UXO training manager. “It was developed so they could clean up the Badlands Bombing Range because they wanted their land back. They petitioned the government, and this course was developed.”
From those original 25 students, the program has grown to be so thorough and the teaching so innovative that it is the only UXO Technician course originally certified by the U.S. Department of Defense. Trainees learn explosive safety and security in 20 separate courses including UXO International Explosive Ordnance Disposal, International Counterterrorism, Advanced Counterterrorism, Law Enforcement and Ordnance Training and Explosives Management.
“We had one guy come through and he couldn’t get a UXO job, but he got picked up as a security guard in an embassy in Afghanistan because of his UXO background,” says Charles Baisey, training director for TEEX Public Safety and Security Division. “The content of the course is wide enough to apply to many sectors where explosives are used. Our course focuses on demolition practices very closely, more so than others that would teach this course. We have a very high reputation in the industry because of the quality of teaching that Ed [Fritz] does. There are some companies that only hire a TEEX graduate because of the demolition knowledge that they bring to the work environment when they show up.”
The four-week, 200-hour course requires a minimum of 24 students for each program. Students have ranged from an 18-year-old girl to a 78-year-old man and people often go through the program with family members. The job placement rate is contingent on funding that has been issued for ordnance clean-up efforts and varies greatly from year to year. Contractors are invited to the graduation ceremony as a networking tool for the graduates to meet potential employees.
The UXO Training School just introduced the iPad into their program in April, and not a single student dropped the course during the month the iPad was introduced (on average, one out of twelve drops). Students can bookmark, underline and highlight the virtual textbooks, just as they would a physical textbook.
Two types of X-ray devises and a bomb suit allow students to see through suitcases, boxes and the ordnance while learning how to determine if something is dangerous.
Just a short car ride from the classroom, an even more hands-on approach awaits the trainees. In an artificial minefield complete with a variety of vegetation, soil and vermin, students search for mines and tripwires just as they would in a war zone.
“It is a realistic training environment that reflects what they find overseas,” says Baisey, “and (they) patiently apply the skills they’ve been taught.”
Everything from climate and soil conditions to the type of explosive and whether or not there are civilians in the surrounding area is covered. From hot, arid desert climate to a tropical rainforest, students learn to handle a myriad of explosive situations. Because unlike the stuff in the closet on the Riverside campus, when UXO graduates are called on to perform in the real world, the ordnance they find are likely capable of reducing some building somewhere to smoking rubble. – by Caroline Ward
For more information about the Unexploded Ordnance programs offered by the Texas Engineering Extension Service, visit www.teex.com.