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The Man Who Wrote the Guidebook for Civilian Bomb-Squad Technicians

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Identifying munitions was a part of my job in the military as an explosive ordnance disposal (E.O.D.) officer, and it has carried on in my career in journalism. The Navy spent the better part of a year training me in the basics of that task, but until 2014 there wasn’t a decent guidebook to teach civilians to do the kind of specialized detective work needed to tell one weapon from another across the entire spectrum of military ordnance.

Then Tom Gersbeck came along. Gersbeck, a retired Marine Corps E.O.D. officer, recently published the second edition of his book, “Practical Military Ordnance Identification,” which was first released five years ago. The book lays out the basic terminology of the field and explains how weapons are classified according to their design and function. It explains the deductive process by which bomb technicians learn to recognize the taxonomy of various munitions in a way not unlike biologists who learn to move from domain and kingdom down to genus and species.

I talked with Gersbeck about his book, and its origin story. (Full disclosure: I volunteered historical research for the chapter about cluster munitions when Gersbeck was writing it in 2018.)

So why write the book?

I was teaching a course on munitions at Texas A&M in the early 2000s, and all of my student guides were just PowerPoint presentations. I found those ended up on a shelf or in the trash. I really wanted to provide something more substantial that could give civilian bomb-squad technicians enough information that they could make safety determinations when they’re dealing with very dangerous stuff.

Are military weapons a problem that civilian bomb squads have to deal with?

Undoubtedly. The research I did for the book showed that in Los Angeles County, the sheriff’s bomb squad responds to about 500 “call-outs” a year, and about 40 percent of the incidents involve military ordnance. But farther south in San Diego, where there is more of a military presence, that percentage rises to around 70 percent.

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I found no bomb squad in America where less than 30 percent of their calls involved ordnance. People like park rangers, who patrol areas that were formerly military-weapons ranges, are constantly encountering munitions. A lot of the point of this book is to provide an unclassified reference that helps first responders recognize what they’re looking at so they can call and get the right people there.

Why does it matter that it is unclassified?

Public-safety bomb technicians are usually told to call the nearest military squad if they find something. But if you’re in a rural area, and the military is not available, you have a problem. Sometimes you can’t just take a photo and send it to a military squad; you have to be able to accurately describe it over a landline or through an email. So how do you describe what you’re looking at? And how can you tell a missile from a rocket from an artillery shell?

The military uses a classified publication system for munitions that it normally can’t share with civilian first responders. So if your only option is to use Google to identify a weapon, you might find 80,000 possibilities. My goal is to get you down to 18 possibilities by entering the right information into the search window.

What normally turns up in civilian hands in America?

In earlier wars, it was really no problem for a service member to ship something back from a war zone and lots of people brought home munitions that could fit in a pocket or a backpack. So you often encounter things like small mortar projectiles and hand grenades. With hand grenades, there have been so many designs and some of them are horribly dangerous. So you need to get a decent identification because once you know what it is, you know what’s in it, then you can ascertain the danger and what you need to do about it.

So if someone’s war-veteran relative dies and they find something suspicious while clearing out their belongings, what should they do?

Don’t move it. Don’t touch it. I would highly suggest calling the local Police Department. They’re going to send a police officer to take a look, and that officer can call in the bomb squad — who can deal with it safely.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

The Latest From At WarAfghan War Casualty Report: August 9-15Aug 15, 2019In the Los Angeles area?

On Sept. 11, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Times journalist and Marine veteran C. J. Chivers will moderate a discussion on the last effects of “bad paper” discharges for military veterans. The panel will include the national correspondent and Pulitzer Prize winner Dave Philipps; Rose Carmen Goldberg, a lecturer at U.C. Berkeley School of Law who represented veterans with bad paper as a supervising staff attorney at Swords to Plowshares, a veterans rights organization in San Francisco; and veterans who have been discharged with bad paper.

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Behind the Numbers: 42,000ImageCreditJim Huylebroek for The New York Times

In a new report, the U.S. inspector general for Afghanistan said that Afghan military strength was at its lowest level since January 2015, having dropped by 42,000 troops compared with its end-strength total documented in April 2018. Nearly 18 years after the U.S.-led invasion, the report attributes the depletion of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces to a multinational effort to weed out corruption in its ranks, meaning only those troops validated by existing biometrics were counted. “The change,” reads the report, was part of an effort “to reduce opportunities for corrupt ANDSF officials to report ‘ghost’ (nonexistent) soldiers and police on personnel rolls in order to pocket the salaries.” The findings, which attest to what The Times this week called the “woeful state” of Afghan forces, comes just as the United States appears to be nearing a deal with the Taliban to pull its troops out of Afghanistan. Read more about the state of the Afghan army here. — Jake Nevins, Times Magazine fellow

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