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The women of Air Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal units

  • Published
  • By Laura McGowan
  • 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
While every job in the United States Air Force is important to the success of its mission, there are some jobs that leave no room for error. One such career field is the Air Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal specialty, whose motto, "Initial Success or Total Failure," are words to live by-literally.

"The USAF EOD program is a very strong specialty, and the perspective and diversity our female Airmen bring with them has been vital to our success," said Chief Master Sgt. Robert Hodges, EOD career field manager at Tyndall AFB, Fla. "These warriors are standing side-by-side with their male counterparts, engaged in life-threatening missions, saving lives every day."

Females account for 55 of the 970 total EOD technicians in the Air Force. Three who serve here with the 88th Air Base Wing Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit are part of a team that requires their total commitment and trust. One, Senior Airman Rachel Frankhouser, is currently deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan.

While she was growing up, Senior Airman Marie Martinson said she wanted to become a scuba diver to work with animals. She initially went to school for art but started taking foreign language classes, hoping to enter the Air Force as a linguist. There were no openings in that career field.

"Because of the inherent danger, you must volunteer for EOD," she said. "I told my job counselor that I wanted the farthest thing from a desk job."

Airman Martinson's recruiter told her to go EOD if she wanted the best; because it was the most exciting career field the Air Force had to offer. "He was absolutely right, I love it."

She trained for seven months at the Naval School Explosive Ordnance Disposal at Eglin AFB, Fla., and was immediately assigned to the 88th ABW CED. In January 2010, she returned from a six month deployment to Afghanistan.

The NAVSCOLEOD is a Navy-managed command, jointly staffed by Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps personnel. After a DOD Directive in 1971, the Secretary of the Navy was assigned as the single manager for Military Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technology and Training.

Upon successful completion of this training, the military member earns an entry level EOD badge also known as the "Crab" because of its wreath design. The coveted EOD badge is a multi-service one, identical in every branch of service. It is a badge of courage, for EOD technicians, showing they belong to a unique band of warriors.

Airman Martinson, said she has a sister who is also in the AF, working in a communications squadron. She said her parents are very proud of her and her sister for serving their country, but she said they worry about her a lot because of her career field. She tries to keep them updated, especially when deployed, to help allay their concerns. Her two brothers think her job is awesome.

Sergeant Amber Hanlon, of the 88 ABW EOD, also just returned from the deployment Kandahar in January. She has deployed several times to Iraq and once to Afghanistan.

"My second tour to Baghdad, my team and the other AF EOD team were hand-selected to move north to Forward Operating Base Warhorse with 3rd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Calvary Regiment," Sergeant Hanlon said. They participated in multiple operations that encompassed the last big push by U.S. Forces into a known Al-Qaeda stronghold outside Baquba, Iraq. Their efforts allowed U.S. Forces the freedom of movement needed to regain control of that vital land area.

"I don't feel that gender has anything to do with gaining respect in EOD," said Sergeant Hanlon. "Every EOD tech I know judges other techs on whether they would like to work with them in combat or not."

She said, "Respect is definitely earned in EOD since you have to trust your co-workers, or family as I consider most EOD techs, with your life on a daily basis."

"The goal is to be seen as an EOD first," said Airman Martinson. "In regard to getting respect, we definitely have to earn it."

This sentiment is something that both Sergeant Hanlon and Airman Martinson agree upon-earning their respect. They also share a love and commitment for what they do and feel what they are doing is much more than a job. It is a life-saving career field that demands precision even as their adrenaline pumps during the orchestrated chaos they face when deployed.

"I have the coolest job in the world. It's not boring, it's exhilarating and worthwhile," said Airman Martinson.

Sergeant Hanlon explained that one of the last times she responded with soldiers during her deployment to Afghanistan was January 2010. "I watched from my truck as they utilized some of the training they had just received from me and my fellow EOD techs," she said. "I realized that we made a huge difference in the way that they operate."

Both feel EOD technicians play a vital role in the AF mission. Airman Martinson said, "We destroy the enemy's number one weapon, IEDs.

"They also support aircraft by rendering safe any explosive hazards that may arise.

They support combat Airmen by clearing any explosive hazards found, conducting post blast analysis to determine techniques, tactics, procedures of the enemy, and training the force on proper techniques when faced with IEDs. They also support local communities at home station by responding to any call when munitions are found.

"We support combat airmen on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan by clearing any explosive hazards found," said Sergeant Hanlon. "We conduct post blast analysis to determine techniques when faced with the number one threat to coalition forces--IEDs."

"The satisfaction of defeating something created purely to kill or maim a human being, and seeing the look on a person's face when I make their village a safer place to raise their children, makes my job the most rewarding thing I have ever and probably will ever do," said Sergeant Hanlon.

Senior Master Sergeant Trent Topolski, 88 ABW EOD flight chief, here said that he was very proud of the young men and women that have served within their career field. He said they deploy often, more so than other career fields. Their deployments are for six months at a time in order to maintain the mental acuity needed to perform with precision. He said they have to be able to keep up their level of expectation and anticipation that something can happen.

When asked if it was taboo for EOD techs to keep track of the number of explosives they disarmed, he said, no. They keep track for training purposes, ratings, awards, and for milestones that are historically relevant; for example, the first, 50th, 100th, 500th, 1000th, and so forth."

Both Sergeant Hanlon and Airman Martinson could have given sensational details about their jobs and the things they have seen and faced in combat, but they have chosen not to. They don't want to worry their families, and they don't want people to feel that their career field can afford "cowboys or cowgirls."

The AF EOD career field has transitioned significantly, and the contributions of its female counterparts have played a role in its overall success. The Air Force has lost 12 Air Force EOD technicians to the war. Of them, one was Senior Airman Elizabeth Loncki, 23 years old, of New Castle, Del. She was assigned to the 775th Civil Engineer Squadron, Hill AFB, Utah, and she gave her life on January 7, 2007, when a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device detonated while she and her team were performing duties in the Baghdad area.

Master Sergeant Michelle Barefield recently retired from Seymour Johnson AFB, N.C. She was highlighted in the first Air Force Portraits of Courage for her operations in Iraq, during the height of the operations in southern Baghdad, securing that region from insurgent and sectarian violence.

And lastly, the current Air Force EOD director is a woman, Lt. Col. Laurie Richter. She is returning from a six-month deployment as the Deputy Commander for a Navy Mobile Unit commanding joint service EOD forces in the most dangerous and active area in Afghanistan.