What makes someone change career from the safety of Information Technology and fly to Kosovo for training in explosive ordnance disposal?
Deviating from my usual posts as want to share with you a very special guest post by Neil Lintern. Read why bomb disposal and landmine clearing became his passions…
A continuation of my quest to become an EOD Technician…however, I think that this piece needs to start in May 2013, well before my 6-week journey to Kosovo in October 2013 to complete my EOD level 2 and EOD level 3 courses in Peja.
I’ll set the scene…Brighton, Queensland, Australia, on a damp Friday night, playing football for the Brighton Bulldogs, 0-2 at a home, not going well really and being pretty much out-played (just to bear in mind that I’m booked on a flight to Pristina, Kosovo in 2 weeks time). This is an over 35’s league, so that puts it more into perspective!
Anyway, the second half beckons and I’m playing left back, my usual position because in the midfield you just have to keep running too much. Ten minutes into the half, the spills loose from a challenge in the midfield and I race forwards (honest, I was going at speed) and go in for a tackle with the opposition’s right back…we clash and somehow I manage to go straight up in the air, over his leg, cartwheel into the night sky and crash back to ground, very hard ground at that, right on the point of my left shoulder! I feel something go straight away and black out…I come too with players and referee looking down at me as I lay on my back staring at the sky. My ribs hurt and I can’t breath properly, which is probably just as well as the referee asks if I can get up. My response was unprintable! I’m aided from the pitch and have to walk around to the subs bench and only then do I feel my shoulder isn’t quite right. My team mates say straight away, take your shirt off now because they’ll only cut it off later in Hospital (they needed the shirt for next week!).
So, to cut this part of the story short, I suffered a grade 3 shoulder separation (look it up, it’s gruesome); surgery was optional, but I chose not to, and ended up 6 weeks in a sling and 6 weeks further recovery. I looked something like an Orc out of the Hobbit with a bung shoulder for a while and my two sons kindly referred to me as Quasimodo…how wonderful. However, my Kosovo trip had to be put off until later in the year, as trying to train in EOD one-armed was deemed a little too dangerous, funny when you think about it really. But, the real bonus for missing my training slot was the friends and great company I met in Kosovo later in the year, definitely worth the wait.
And so to October and November 2013, and my travels to Kosovo, via Bangkok and Istanbul and 35 hours of travel. Worth every minute of it as Kosovo is truly a magical place, a country born out of war recently, but trying to find it’s own place in the world. I would suggest visiting Kosovo before it’s “discovered” and made too touristy. The people are very friendly and I had no issues in 6 weeks living in Peja, a western city, under the accursed mountains.
I was training with MAT Mondial, a British organisation who have been in Kosovo for many years and have a superb training facility on the outskirts on Peja. During the first three weeks, there were six of us on the course for our EOD 2 qualification. We were from all over the globe and a greta bunch of characters to work with.
The course was well organised and run and we started on Monday morning, 8.30am sharp and straight into some theory. It was a good mix of theory and practical throughout the three weeks and the course leader, Artur, was excellent; he was brilliantly assisted by Idris and Flora, all three from Peja and all very knowledgable. It was serious stuff however, as you can imagine, but with fun as well, you do have to have a black sense of humour in this field, I think. We gelled well as a group and this made the learning more enjoyable and living together in the same place 24/7 not so bad.
You have to know what you’re dealing with before you can make decisions on your next course of action, so, being able to ID a device, mine, object or a piece of scrap is vital and this was drummed into us continually. We were given exercise after exercise and a final exam on certain objects, very stressful at times, but critical to know your stuff. Although I did think that the circa 1910 hand grenade in the exam, like the one used against the ArchDuke Ferdinand in 1914, was a bit crafty…I put down landmine! (see photo above and see what you think).
In conjunction with theory, minefield technique practicals, and EOD tasks, we had live firing on a range near the mountainous Albanian border. Wonderful scenery and a stillness surrounds the area, that was heavily mined during the Kosovan war. Until of course we start our live firing techniques and disposal of munitions with plastic explosives, each boom reverberated across the valley. After a successful day of training we stopped off on the way back to Peja for a quick beer, to celebrate the practical tests and that nobody was hurt. Some had the local Raki instead and maybe a little too much as the day afterwards there were a few sore heads to nurse, good fun though.
So to the final week and many an evening sat as a group around the collective tables, revising, reading, making sure we know what colour bands goes with which fill for mortars and rockets. It was all worth while though as everybody passed the final week with flying colours in both theory and practicals, which included a full day out in the wooded hills west of Peja in a mock-up minefield scenario. It’s a great feeling to achieve the EOD Level 2 qualification, but there’s another three weeks to go yet. A weekend of more celebration followed, of course, has to be done. Unfortunately, nobody seemed to have remembered the effect of the local Raki from before…so Sunday became a bit of blurry haze for some. A bit of a tradition for the group, which was carried on throughout the entire six weeks, was a trip to the Hotel Dukagjini for a wonderful meal of Peppered Steak & chips, simply delicious!
Four of the original group of six stayed on to complete the EOD Level 3 course and we were joined by another seven people from various parts of the world; all had some previous demining experience to varying levels in Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. This course is harder and much more intense, and we had a new lead tutor from the UK, who we name the “Bomb Professor”. Peter Le Seur is a very knowledgable person that seems to know pretty much everything about every mine, rocket, and projectile ever produced! Again, we’re brilliantly supported by Artur, Idris, and Flora.
The next three weeks pretty much followed the same pattern as the first course, except that it was much harder with more revising and learning every evening to keep up with the curriculum. We needed to know more, including how to lead a team when the time comes. There are more practical sessions with many EOD task exercises, and how to deal with booby traps and IED’s. We spent a lot of time driving down the road to a local derelict factory, where cunning devices were hidden for us to find and deal with.
A little less of the Raki and beer for the first two weeks of the EOD 3 course, strange that…but we were a bit busy!
Without question, I found the final week to be a stressful one…two sets of written assessments as well as practical tests. I’m not a great fan of exams, but that’s part of life; you just have to get on with it but I still detest them. The aerial dropped weapons proved to be a challenge for everybody, it was certainly one old hard written test and really takes you back to the bad old days of your school days in the sports hall, desperately looking for inspiration out the window.
The practical tests were also very much a challenge and we were continually assessed throughout the three weeks, both as individuals and groups. I found that type of assessment easier, but still very difficult. Also, we had to learn about IMSMA, the database that deals with minefields and dangerous areas around the world, GPS, map reading and compass bearings…not always good to lose your way when trying to locate a cluster bomb in a known contaminated area. Always good to know how to measure distance in metric not imperial; could be a fatal mistake!
It was on the last day that my assessment arrived, all a bit nerve-racking for me, but there you go. My challenge was an air-dropped NATO bomb that had failed to detonate and landed close to some buildings. After choosing my second in command to assist me, through the ten steps of an EOD task I went, speaking to the local person on site, how to approach, long and short recce, ID the device, and decide how to render safe. I pretty much did okay and managed to pass my assessment in the failing afternoon Peja light.
People have failed this course in the past and there is no guaranteed pass here for just turning up and going through the motions with MAT Mondial. You have to earn your qualification and that goes for everybody including those with military and demining backgrounds.
Finally onto the graduation for EOD 3. There were a few resits on the written assessments and a couple of retakes on the practicals for a few people, but everybody passed and I was happy with my scores on both. The evening’s celebrations culminated in a huge BBQ on the HG balcony and we were more in danger of being overcome by smoke that evening than all the dangers of the previous six weeks! Much food, wine, and spirits were had by all and everybody departed the following day to their various locations around the world in their quest to help others and my hat goes off to each and every one. Kosovo is a wonderful place to visit and learn, and hopefully one day I would like to give something back to this country.
Again, a huge sense of achievement for me coupled with a massive sense of relief. This trip was self-funded with a view to a new career in Humanitarian Demining and following a passion to help people throughout the world who are in need.
Now, it’s time to see where I go next and where I will be working or volunteering…I’ll let you know.
Don’t forget to check out Neil’s travel and photography blog.