REDSTONE ARSENAL: Is it Hollywood entertainment or a realistic depiction of war? Does it address the true issues facing explosive ordnance disposal Soldiers in a war zone or does it give a skewed view of the Army and its highly trained EOD Soldiers?
Does it accurately portray the Army EOD Soldier and the challenges of the job in Iraq and Afghanistan?
The recent Academy Award-winning film “The Hurt Locker,” which won best picture, best director, best original screenplay, best sound editing, best sound mixing and best film editing at the awards presentation March 7, follows the gripping tale of an explosive ordnance team’s operations in Iraq in 2004. It has been both praised and panned by Soldiers, veterans and retirees throughout the nation.
Those feelings are mirrored by the Soldiers and instructors who make up the explosive ordnance disposal training program offered by the Ordnance Munitions and Electronics Maintenance School. The general consensus is that, as an overall Hollywood movie, “The Hurt Locker” leaves viewers with a good portrayal of the issues pertaining to today’s Soldiers at war. But, when it focuses on specifics concerning the operations and techniques of these Soldiers, the movie comes up short.
“As a whole, it is a positive portrayal. It shows the danger of war, the thankless job EOD guys have and how hard it is to take care of business,” Lt. Col. Michael “Greg” Hicks, director of the EOD/Munitions Training Department at OMEMS, said.
“But Hollywood isn’t necessarily going to get it right. It is more dramatic, more entertaining than what really happens. Observing EOD training is like watching paint dry. Most of the drama for an EOD Soldier is in his head as he thinks through a situation and how to make it safe.”
The movie, which lost its initial support from the Army due to inaccurate depictions of Soldiers, does resonate with both Soldiers and the public in its attempt to explain the environment of war in Iraq, the danger and stresses that Soldiers confront during their missions, and the lasting emotional impact war can have on a Soldier. The script was written by freelance writer Mark Boal, who was embedded with a unit from the 52nd EOD Group during 2004-05.
“It didn’t really say the Iraqi war was right or wrong,” Hicks said. “It showed Soldiers during their job, protecting other U.S. Soldiers and Iraqis.”
Yet there are several scenes in the movie that falsely portray the way Soldiers are trained to react to battlefield situations. Specifically, the movie’s lead character – hot-headed, renegade Sgt. 1st Class William James who leads a three-man EOD team without any consideration to their safety – would more than likely never have made it to the battlefield.
“He (James) was a cowboy. Part of our purpose in phase one of training is to serve as a screening process,” Hicks said. “We work to identify Soldiers who are not suitable or can’t live up to facing the challenges.”
“Our Soldiers are taught that this is not about one guy. It’s about a team of three guys. We reinforce here that the team is in this together and must be able to rely on each other.”
It was sadly ironic to Hicks that the EOD Soldier in the first scene of the movie followed the methodology of his profession and yet was killed by an IED explosion and yet the renegade main character broke all the rules and survived.
Some of the movie’s scenes depict crimes and situations that are absolutely forbidden to Soldiers.
“For entertainment value, it was a good movie. But there are a lot of processes an EOD Soldier has to go through and big ramifications that can happen when those processes aren’t followed,” Sgt. Maj. James Lambert of the EOD/Munitions Training Department said.
Lambert, who served with an EOD unit in Afghanistan, has a close connection to the movie. In the early days of development, when the Army was supporting the movie’s production, Lambert spent time at Fort Irwin, Calif., introducing director Kathryn Bigelow to the work and tools of an EOD Soldier.
Yet, Lambert admits he was unable to watch the entire movie. At one point about mid-way through the film, a Soldier kills an injured, unarmed and bound terrorist at the instruction of his commanding officer. That particular scene was so unreal and so against Army policies that Lambert said he had to stop watching.
While on a professional level the movie wasn’t an accurate depiction of the Soldier’s values and standards, Lambert can understand its appeal on a personal level.
“The movie gives kind of the average American citizen a view of what Soldiers deal with on the battlefield. If it gives them a vision of how challenging it is to be a Soldier in combat, then it’s worth it,” he said.
Other scenes – such as the terrorist in the market igniting an IED with a cell phone and the EOD Soldiers taking on their own ordnance raid – aren’t realistic. In actuality, the open market includes lots of Iraqis with cell phones and a terrorist never stands out. And EOD teams are always armed on a mission with another force that provides them with security.
“You drive through the streets of Iraq by yourself and you are going to get killed,” Hicks said of EOD teams.
In yet another tension-filled scene where a suspect tries to drive through an area cordoned off because of a vehicle bomb and is eventually allowed out of the area without incident does not reflect the reality Hicks remembers from his deployment in 2008-09 with the 52nd EOD Group.
“Before I left Iraq, we cordoned off an area and a car blew through the cordon before we could react. He was a vehicle-born IED that detonated. Part of the car hit an EOD Soldier and he lost a leg,” Hicks said.
The Army trains its own EOD Soldiers at OMEMS during a nine-week class that prepares them for the nine-month Naval EOD School at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., which all EOD servicemembers must attend regardless of military branch. Each EOD class taught at OMEMS includes about 200 Soldiers.
“We teach the very basics of how ordnance functions and what its explosive effect is,” Hicks said. “We teach how to identify ordnance. Eighty percent of the job is identifying what the threat is. We teach basic demolitions, recognizance procedures and the basics of EOD tools.
“There is a high attrition rate at the Navy school. We hope the instruction we give our Soldiers here will help them get through the Navy school. There is so much to learn. To identify the hazards, Soldiers must know thousands upon thousands of types of ordnance.”
Besides training in how to handle explosive ordnance, EOD Soldiers also learn skills associated with forensics so they can gather evidence after an ordnance explosion for analysis and reverse engineering. Such skills help the Army determine what person or group was behind an attack, and any new trends in the types and uses of IEDs.
Although improvised explosive devices are the number one threat, Soldiers also learn about chemical and nuclear weapons.
“It’s hard for humans to retain all this information. So, once they get in the field, they are continuously training and working to retain their skills,” Hicks said. “If they thought getting the (EOD) badge was tough, it’s even harder to wear it. The EOD Soldier must continually be improving so that they have the confidence to do a dangerous job.”
In addition, OMEMS trains EOD noncommissioned officers and teaches the two-week Global Antiterrorism Operational Readiness Course to provide deploying 40-member EOD units with up-to-date information on the current improvised explosive ordnance threat and other explosive threats, and tactics and techniques procedures.
“We have to make sure these units have the edge when they get ready to deploy,” Hicks said.
The OMEMS EOD training staff consists primarily of civilians who have experience as deployed EOD Soldiers. Although these jobs are supposed to be filled by active military, the current war effort has caused OMEMS to rely on the experience of veterans and retirees turned teachers.
“Our Soldiers now just in the last 10 years have an extraordinary amount of experience in EOD than the generation before them,” Hicks said.
“The term IED was coined by EOD years and years before today’s war. But we have adjusted our training because of the increased prevalence of IEDs and their increased sophistication.”
For Hicks and Lambert, the appealing nature of EOD has been its evolving and ever-present mission. Even when EOD Soldiers are stationed at their home installations, there is still a need for them to respond to local missions involving unexploded ordnance or domestic bomb situations. EOD units also have a mission to assist the Secret Service and the State Department with providing protection to the president.
The Iraq of 2004 filmed in “The Hurt Locker” is not the same as the Iraq of today, said Hicks, whose unit was involved in about 5,000 IED operations in Iraq. The unit lost three Soldiers and had six Soldiers wounded during the deployment.
“Toward the end of our tour, things were getting better,” he recalled. “We started getting Iraqi forces better trained and prepared. A lot of the mission is shifting to the Iraqi EOD.”
Hicks can relate to the feelings of “The Hurt Locker’s” main character when he went home from his tour and found himself yearning to return to the battlefield.
“There are EOD Soldiers who are tired of deploying. But this is what we do,” he said. “I know Soldiers who extended to stay past their length of tour. I know Soldiers who came home and waived their time here just so they could turn around and go back.
“You do miss your family. But there is an important job to be done over there.”