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Bomb disposal: Same job, different pay

By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 1, 2008

The motto is the same no matter the uniform worn: "Initial success or total failure."

Army, Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy bomb disposal experts all risk their lives and many have died doing the job.

But all is not equal — or fair, some would say — in war.

In the U.S. military’s explosive ordnance disposal career field, there’s a big gap in bonuses and extra pay among the branches of service.

The highest earning power belongs to EOD sailors. Since 2002, the signing bonus for Navy EOD recruits has risen from $8,000 to $40,000. Master EOD technicians with 19 to 25 years of service can earn a bonus of up to $150,000 for re-enlisting another six years, according to Navy officials. The bonus for senior EOD soldiers to re-enlist can also top $100,000.

Compare that to the Air Force, where a four-year EOD enlistee can pocket $3,000, and senior noncommissioned EOD officers who re-enlist can earn up to $60,000.

Some argue that the pay for Air Force EOD doesn’t match its contribution to the war.

In 2007, Air Force EOD technicians responded to 8,153 calls — including more than 3,000 for improvised explosives — in Afghanistan and Iraq, conducting 44 percent of all EOD missions in those countries, Air Force officials said.

Only the Army has more EOD technicians deployed downrange, according to the Air Force. Given that level of support, Air Force EOD bonuses and pay "may not seem adequate," said Chief Master Sgt. Robert Hodges, the Air Force’s EOD career field manager. "But they are the highest they’ve been in my 24 years of service."

The Air Force is trying to sweeten the pot as it tries to hang on to experienced EOD airmen, while enticing recruits to sign up for one of the most dangerous jobs in the war.

"We’re working very hard with the personnel world to evaluate pay increases and [bonuses] and special duty pay," he said.

The Air Force in recent years has allowed EOD to promote its airmen faster than the service average, a trend that will continue, Hodges said.

"We realized we’ve got to do something," he said. "We are losing numbers."

Over the past couple of years attrition has outpaced the rate of airmen entering EOD, Hodges said. EOD ranks E-6 and E-7 hover around 60 percent to 65 percent of the Air Force target, he said. The biggest losses have been in master sergeants nearing the 20-year mark, Hodges said.

The Air Force is not alone. The Navy, Marines and Army face the same challenge of keeping their EOD units robust as roadside bombs continue to be the number one killer of U.S. troops in Iraq.

The Navy’s 912 EOD enlisted manning is at 86 percent, about 152 personnel short, according to Navy spokeswoman Katie Suich.

Army officials at the Pentagon did not provide figures on EOD staffing.

The Marine Corps’ current goal is 663 enlisted EOD Marines. With 456 Marines already on the job, the service expects to meet its goal by the end of the fiscal year, according to Capt. Blanca Binstock, a Marine Corps spokeswoman at the Pentagon.

To meet that goal, the Corps is banking on 142 Marines successfully completing EOD training by this fall. Only 42 EOD Marines have 15 or more years of service.

To try to hang on to its senior bomb experts, the Corps is offering EOD Marines with 18 to 20 years of service up to $80,000 to re-enlist, well above the service’s $13,000 average for re-upping E-8s and E-9s, officials said.

But EOD operators from all services believe the military could improve compensation for their career field.

Master Sgt. Michael Burghardt, 38, most recently an EOD chief at Camp Fuji, Japan, before moving on to another assignment in April, believes all services should offer the same professional pay for EOD.

"We all attend the same basic schools, conduct the same training, and have generally the same dangerous mission," he said.

Burghardt says the Marines should provide incentives similar to the Navy and Army. Special duty assignment pay in the Navy ranges from $75 to $450 per month, depending on time in service and experience, while the Army last year began offering assignment incentive pay ranging from $50 to $750 per month.

The only special pay the Marines and Air Force currently offer to EOD personnel is $150 per month demolition pay for live explosives work.

Hodges said the Air Force is considering the possibility of a special duty pay.

On top of special duty and demolition pay, EOD sailors can receive dive and jump pay, up to $215 and $225 per month, respectively.

Navy EOD training is one of the military’s most demanding. All military EOD personnel filter through the same school at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., but to that, the Navy adds dive and jump school and other advanced training, a pipeline lasting more than a year.

Though Navy EOD perks lead the other services, some sailors think compensation should be even higher.

Recent pay increases have helped, "but I don’t think it’s anywhere near where it needs to be," said Chief Petty Officer Brandon Smith of EOD Mobile Unit Five Detachment Japan at Yokosuka Naval Base.

"A standard guy in the Navy … when he retires at 20 years, he’s going to get the same retirement," Smith said. "He’s not going to have half the injuries that I have. We’ve got guys missing hands, brain trauma; we all get the same retirement."


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