By Maj. Holli Nelson
| Nov. 4, 2019
Soldiers with the West Virginia Army National Guard’s 753rd Explosive Ordnance Disposal post for a photo during their deployment to Afghanistan in support of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. The 753rd EOD completed more than 13,000 hours of EOD work in theater, including over 600 missions and incident responses. (Courtesy photo) (Photo by courtsey photo)
Soldiers with the West Virginia Army National Guard’s 753rd Explosive Ordnance Disposal pose for a photo while constructing a demolition pit. The 753rd EOD completed more than 13,000 hours of EOD work in theater, including over 600 missions and incident responses. (Courtesy photo) (Photo by courtsey photo)
The West Virginia Army National Guard's 753rd Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit recently returned to the Mountain State after successfully completing a nine-month overseas deployment in support of Operation Freedom's Sentinel, where they earned praise and recognition for their vital support to the United States mission in Afghanistan.
The 753rd EOD, based out of Kingwood, West Virginia, consists of over 40 personnel from around the United States, 32 of which were deployed. The unit specializes in the identification, safe handling, and rendering safe of unexploded ordnance (UXO), and is tasked with protecting U.S. forces from improvised explosive devices (IED), hazardous munitions, and weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Members of the unit work with cutting-edge technology and are some of the U.S. Army's most highly trained and skilled Soldiers.
While deployed, the unit's mission was to reduce or eliminate the hazards of munitions and explosive devices for Train, Advise, and Assist Command - South (TAAC-South) and TAAC-SouthWest. TAAC-South is a multinational military formation part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO's) Resolute Support mission within Afghanistan. The unit worked with NATO partners and U.S. forces on counterterrorism and EOD operations throughout their Area of Responsibility (AOR) in southern Afghanistan.
"I think it was a great experience for the Soldiers that had never had a deployment previously. This was a great opportunity for them being exposed to a variety of EOD work and creating ways to complete that work not previously done," said U.S. Army Capt. Ryan Stancik, commander of the 753rd EOD. "This [deployment] was kind of a perfect mix of just one to two responses a day and then some planned missions. Our folks were really able to showcase their ingenuity thanks to the pace of operations, which was extremely beneficial for our unit and the overall success of the TACC-South mission."
Spc. Parker Onestingel, an EOD technician from Parkersburg, West Virginia, described his experience working with foreign forces while deployed as highly beneficial.
"We worked with Polish special operations forces and German EOD and they were all really awesome," he said. "It was nice because the Polish forces really appreciated us, and we were able to learn from each other. The first missions we ran, we were able to prove ourselves to them and that solidified our relationship throughout the remainder of the deployment."
During their nine-month rotation, the 753rd EOD completed a total of more than 13,000 hours of EOD work in theatre. The unit handled over 600 missions and incident responses, including providing personnel for 50 named operations, 40 IED removals, 46 UXO removals, 15 aircraft responses, more than 200 route clearance patrols with evaluations for post-blast or emplacements by enemy combatants, and 17 disposals for more than two million total ordnance items.
The unit soon earned a reputation throughout the region as a premier EOD service provider. While the majority of the unit remained in Afghanistan for the entirety of their deployment, some team members were forward deployed to areas within Iraq and Syria to augment missions for specialized units operating in those countries.
Stancik, explained that EOD forces or teams (a two-person EOD response element) can truly operate on their own while deployed. They are the face of EOD as they move forward to more remote locations and are expected to be able to carry out all aspects of the mission despite a lack of higher echelon leadership attached directly to their team.
"We had to show up every day and demonstrate to our 'customers' that we were capable and ready to provide the support they needed," Stancik said. "This enabled us to build rapport and most importantly trust with the requesting/supported units. Whether this was through operations or training, the units performance as a whole, created opportunities where many times EOD teams were requested on a by-name basis by units throughout the combined joint forces Afghanistan."
In recognition for their contributions, the unit's personnel received numerous awards and decorations including Soldiers earning eight Bronze Star Medals, and various Commendation and Meritorious Service Medals. Two additional Bronze Star Medals with Valor and one Purple Heard Medal are awaiting final approval before being awarded.
Stancik reiterated that the overall EOD threat in Afghanistan has not diminished, despite the decreased operations tempo and slow drawdown of U.S. forces over the past few years.
"IEDs are still relevant and a serious issue [in Afghanistan]. Just because the ground defense area has shrunk or operations are limited for conventional forces, EOD still plays a huge role with roadside IEDs, weapons caches that typically are booby-trapped, homemade explosives, or whatever it might be that threatens U.S. forces," he said. "If an EOD team is getting called, it's because there's a known or potentially known life-threatening hazard that our folks are dealing with."
Not only did the 753rd assist units 'outside the wire' on a multitude of missions, the unit also identified an opportunity to enhance overall U.S. Forces safety on Kandahar Airfield.
"Our folks did a great job and identified through an operational assessment that there was no on base emergency demo pit or burn area," Stancik said. "Within a week, our Soldiers had proposed a plan to the base stakeholders and received approval from leadership on Kandahar Airfield to build out the area; within another, mostly due to a few Soldiers in the unit, it was built. This allowed forces to refrain from going 'outside the wire' to destroy ammo and limited how many times EOD had to leave base to do their job, which was very well received. We were able to demonstrate our ability to think outside the box and do something that had never been done before, which greatly enhanced the safety of operations for the entire base."
While the deployment itself was nine months, the unit undertook many months of rigorous training in order to be prepared for their mission in Afghanistan.
Roughly four months before the unit left, members took part in specific training to prepare them for what they might face overseas. Training included receiving courses from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) on homemade explosives and site exploitation. In addition, they unit also completed a rotation at the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, Louisiana, completed a team leader training academy and additional demolition, convoy operations, and convoy recovery training.
Because of the extensive training requirements and the overall scarcity of EOD Soldiers within the Army National Guard, the 753rd EOD is comprised of Soldiers from many surrounding states outside of West Virginia. Soldiers travel from states as far away as California to be a part of the unit, thanks in large part to the reputation for excellence the unit has developed, the camaraderie within the unit, and the unique training venue for EOD operations available at Camp Dawson.
"Our unit members do a variety of jobs outside EOD, so when they come to train with us, they want the training to be as realistic and as intense as possible," said Stancik. "Many of our members pass other EOD units to be a part of the WVNG's 753rd.”
"Location plays a big factor," he added. "Camp Dawson's training facility is great for us and our ability to train. With a full variety of training scenario options from urban/industrial to mountainous terrain, our imagination is limitless for what we want to train on there. And, a lot of our staff brings together so much experience and that itself keeps the environment fresh and challenging in order for our folks to perfect their skills."
The recently completed deployment marked the first combat activation for the 753rd EOD. The unit has previously deployed to Kosovo twice, to Kuwait once, and has sent individual augmentee Soldiers to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
While not all Soldiers are native West Virginians, their work both at home and during their recent deployment, supports the safety and security of the Mountain State as well as the nation's National Defense Strategy.