EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. – A new town has sprouted on this military base, with businesses, a well-stocked library, even its own airport passenger terminal. It's part of a new school the military hopes will help bomb squad leaders detect and disarm the deadly improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, that kill American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Advanced Explosives Device Disposal School officially opens next month, and on Friday the military showed off its X-ray cameras, chemical sensors and advanced robotics.
But an Army sergeant using a robot to remove a backpack from a library table said the authentic feel of the mock town is especially important.
"The hardest thing when you get out there in the world, is everything around you," he said. "The biggest problem at an incident site isn't the device — we know how to deal with that — it's everything else."
Because many of the instructors will return to combat soon, the military required they be identified only by their service branch and military rank.
Although the school's students may go overseas, soldiers said the airport is especially important because of the threat of domestic terrorism. The baggage carousel doesn't function but it has a sign warning parents not to let children climb on its belts. The ticket counter includes a Delta Air Lines flight departure board. There are even directions posted to ground transportation.
The detail helps heighten students' senses, an instructor said.
"We want there to be as much realism as we can give them," he said.
The town also has a bank, a school, a newspaper office, a farmhouse and a gas station. The library includes shelves of books, reading tables and a checkout counter.
The sergeant using the robot at the library said his bomb disposal missions in Iraq often involved situations like the one he was acting out. In Iraq, removing bombs without damaging buildings is just as important as saving lives because damage could be seen as a victory for the terrorists, he said.
Using the robot in a real situation, his team could disarm a bomb without having to go inside the building.
"We always prefer to use robots first because we can protect lives," one team member said.
The school will serve all military branches and its instructors come from all of the armed services; three from the Army, three from the Air Force, two from the Navy and one from the Marine Corps. Each class will last three weeks.
Navy Lt. Dave Blauser, the officer in charge of the school, said his instructors are among the most highly trained bomb technicians in the military.
The military's Joint IED Taskforce, which includes the school, is constantly looking at ways to counter the threat of improvised bombs by training teams to detect and avoid the devices, Blauser said.
"We are trying to keep people alive here and trying to mitigate all of the dying," said a Navy petty officer who is an instructor at the school.