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Demand for military bomb techs at all-time high
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    EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — Many things have gone wrong for Navy Senior Chief Tommy Gura while disarming nearly 200 improvised explosive devices in Iraq. He’s been shot at and targeted for mortar attacks. His robots have blown up and he’s lost communication to call for backup.
    But the veteran instructor at the military’s explosive ordnance disposal school tells his young students to be confident in the chaos. Bombs hidden along the roadside and elsewhere remain the top threat to U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, accounting for about a third of all deaths, and it will be the trainees’ job to defuse them.
    ‘‘If something goes wrong and you pout or get upset and people see it, then they are going to be uncomfortable,’’ Gura tells his students. ‘‘You are the calming influence.’’
    That real world advice is more important than ever as the Armed Forces push to graduate more and younger bomb technicians, one of the most intense jobs in the military.
    The Navy recently began allowing recruits to become bomb technicians as their initial job rather than requiring two years of service, a waiver that Army and Air Force already grant; Marines still have to serve two years before learning to defuse bombs.
    Meanwhile, the Army wants to double the number of soldiers graduating the military’s multibranch school for bomb technicians to 1,000 a year.
    That all puts added pressure on war-weary bomb technicians like Gura, who has served three tours in Iraq, to perform overseas and share their knowledge back home.
    ‘‘We are the busiest we’ve ever been — period, all four services. All of our instructors have done multiple deployments,’’ said Lt. Patrick Gerhardstein, the school’s training officer, who’s missed three of his son’s four birthdays because of military duties.
    ‘‘The op tempo is going, going, going. We bring the veterans here because they have the knowledge of what’s going on in theater. We also try to give them time to decompress.’’
    Instructors say the loosened requirements let students learn the craft earlier, but sometimes those students lack the discipline that comes from serving two years in another Navy job. It falls to veteran instructors to teach the recruits the ins and outs of Navy life, Gura said.
    For students, the school is a busy and competitive place — to gain admission, they must excel on aptitude tests and meet stringent physical standards. Dozens of soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors attend classes together, spending a year learning how to disarm land mines, unexploded rockets, IEDs and other explosives. About a third don’t graduate, but about 1,000 a year do.
    Those who drop out often do well on written exams but struggle in timed bomb disposal tests, or the other way around. Others quit when they realize how demanding the career will be on their personal lives, Gerhardstein said.
    Successful students must be well-rounded and focused.
    ‘‘It is inherently a physical exercise but it’s also intellectual,’’ said Ensign Brian Smith, 23 and a Naval Academy graduate who entered the bomb school after obtaining his master’s degree from Georgetown University.
    His toughest challenge has been learning to disarm explosives while wearing a bomb suit.
    ‘‘If you are in 80 pounds of Kevlar and ceramic plates, it will take its toll on you,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s like a workout — you are soaked in sweat and your ability to think and act is inhibited. It’s something you have to work through, the physical exhaustion and the heat.’’
    Instructors remind students that the craft has no room for error by ordering them to polish the names of 232 bomb technicians killed in combat and listed on a memorial wall at the school’s entrance. Since 2001, 56 technicians have died on the job in Iraq and Afghanistan.
    Veteran instructors like Gura knew many of the dead — he has six friends whose names are now on the wall. Gerhardstein also knew several of the dead.
    ‘‘You drive past that wall, run past it every day and it’s a reminder that ’I have to do my best every day to limit the number of names up there,’’’ Gerhardstein said.

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