Saffas in Uniform: Brad Blackw

Saffas in Uniform: Brad Blackwood | Explosives Expert

His work in explosives and Improvised Explosive Devices puts Brad in the frontline of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan. Here he discusses his rigorous training, support for the troops and the impending withdrawal of British troops from Germany

Saffas in Uniform: Brad Blackw

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Name, rank and service:

Brad Blackwood, Sgt, 11 Explosives Ordnance Disposal Regiment, Royal Logistics Corps, British Army


Length of time in current position:

I was actually promoted to Sergeant on 27 June 2013 whilst I was on holiday so I have not been in this position very long.


When did you arrive here in the UK?

I am actually English by birth but grew up in Durban, South Africa from the age of 4. I took a gap year after finishing matric at Westville Boys’ High in 2004 that has never come to an end. I chose to take the original gap year in the UK as I already had a British passport and it would be easy for me to earn pounds and travel from there.


When did you settle on the Army as a career?

I was actually very happy in a job in London when IEDs started becoming the weapon of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan. I kept on reading in the papers or seeing on the news about members of the armed forces and innocent civilians being killed or receiving life-changing injuries and it really started to annoy me. I then decided I was young enough, fit enough and smart enough to join the armed forces, so I went to my nearest careers office in Holborn and told the SSgt there that I wanted to join the trade that did bomb disposal, which is how I ended up in the army as opposed to the other services.


Can you (very briefly) describe your training, or the type of training someone would have to undergo to do your job?

Firstly you will have to pass your basic training which for someone wishing to join the Royal Logistics Corps (RLC) is 14 weeks long. From there you need to pass pre-selection assessments known as Ammunition Technician Careers Advisory Board tests (ATCABs) at Defence Explosive Ordnance Disposal, Munitions and Search School (DEMSS) Kineton at the Army School of Ammunition in Warwickshire. If successful you will then be sent to Shrivenham School of Science near Swindon for 6 weeks, before moving to Kineton for a further 5 months where you learn the basics of almost every piece of ammunition in service in the British Army today on what is known as your Class 2 course. If successful you then do your various driving qualifications before gaining experience working on ammunition in processing facilities, on demolition grounds and on military exercises. Once reaching the rank of Corporal, you return to Kineton to do your Class 1 Upgrading course where you go into far greater depth regarding each piece of ammunition in service, as well as learning how to conduct investigations into ammunition accidents and performance failures. Between these there are various courses such as Joint Service Bomb Disposal and High Threat Bomb Disposal.


With this type of high-level training, you are probably able to walk into a job in the private sector – is it easy for someone with your skill set to get used to civilian life?

Although you do not gain a degree from the various courses we are required to pass, you do have something like 70% of the points necessary to gain various degrees so it is beneficial to study using the army learning credits to get yourself the remaining marks to have a degree should you choose to leave. There are many opportunities to work as a contractor in the Middle East, on oil rigs or in the mining sector depending on what degree you wish to acquire.


What is your uniform? Do you ever work without it?

We all currently wear the MTP uniform which came into service a few years ago. It is a good uniform in winter but in summer it quite literally causes you to overheat so generally in summer I take my shirt off as soon as I come into work and just wear our brown PT shirts instead. On training exercises where we are gluing people to chairs and booby trapping them, then we normally work in old civilian clothes that you don’t mind getting ruined.


How would you compare the British public’s attitude towards your job to that of the SA public?

I find the British public quite unwelcoming of their forces. In the countryside they tend to be very patriotic and friendly but in the major cities where immigration is at its peak, people can actually be quite hostile towards us which is a tragedy in my opinion. I feel I should be able to walk around in uniform proudly but instead I rather opt for civvies to avoid confrontation. In Germany where I am based it is far better. The public really like us and often offer us discounts inside their shops and businesses. In SA the defence force is quite well supported but I am not sure how they would feel about me doing my job for the British. I’m sure they would be cool about it and probably get the beers in!


If you were PM for a day, what would you change?

I would increase funding to ensure we have the best equipment available to combat IEDs both at home and abroad. Falling behind in the continuous race between IED maker and disposer would be detrimental to global security and would no doubt result in an increase in casualties.


How have/how will austerity/budget cuts affect your job?

We are quite fortunate in that our trade is rather small and at present extremely busy with no signs of that letting up. As a result only a small fraction of our trade, primarily in the Officer ranks, has/will be affected.


Do you think HM Government could do fundamentally better by its armed forces, or do you think that the politicians, by and large, have reasonable expectations of the Army, Navy and RAF based on the MoD’s budget?

I feel the Government could do much more to show support for its forces. The fact that students get discounts all over the show when they do not contribute tax or National Insurance to the economy, and we get none – despite doing the opposite and putting our lives on the line for everyone else – infuriates me. If the Germans can give us discounts in their country, then why not our own Government at home?


What is the biggest public misconception about your job?

People ask if we cut wires and stop digital clocks with 1 second to go on them like in the movies. Our job is nothing like that as you never encounter digital clocks and when we cut wires we aren’t dressed in jeans and a t-shirt with a ridiculously good looking woman standing by our side. The public also think we are Engineers which we are not, they wish they had our prestige!


How have the Royal Logistic Corps adapted to modern counterterrorism/counterinsurgency as practised in Afghanistan, Iraq? Do you work in other areas also (e.g. anti-piracy?)

The RLC have adapted and learned from encounters with never-before-seen tactics and devices being used by the enemy which happens in any conflict. In particular, the entire armed forces have been encouraged not to set trends/patterns whilst out in Afghanistan as the locals are very observant and will pass information onto the insurgents should they spot a flaw in our procedures. At present we are not involved in anti-piracy, Mali or anywhere else besides Afghanistan and the UK. However the future may well throw up new places of work for us.


Are you a first-generation serviceman?

I suppose so. My grandfather fought in WW2 and no one has joined since until I did in 2008.


Have you ever indulged in uniform dating?

I have. It is actually really good if you do not do my job. There are many women out there who desire a man in uniform but once I say I do bomb disposal you can literally see them disappearing into the distance.


What has been your most rewarding day professionally (and personally) at work?

Professionally — When I was on Herrick 15 (an operation in Afghanistan”s Helman Province) an Estonian call sign attached to us stepped on an IED and was in bad shape. The Medical Emergency Response Team”s (MERT) Chinook pilot executed the greatest piece of flying I have ever seen. From the time we gave our 9-liner report to the time the soldier was in surgery in [Camp] Bastion [near Lashkar Gah, in Helmand Province] took just 14 minutes. The pilot flew in at extreme speed, barely above the trees, and he never once touched the ground as the medics jumped out the back with their gurney, secured the casualty, put him in the Chinook and then flew off. It took just seconds. The entire team was outstanding but without such a great pilot the outcome could have been different to the positive one that it was.

Personally –  Being asked to do a presentation at the Natal Mounted Rifles explaining what exactly it is we do in Afghan and what we experience out there.


How is it being based in Germany? How will the closure of bases by 2019 affect you and/or the Army?

Being based in Germany is fantastic. As I mentioned earlier, we are so welcome, and so liked there, that it makes you feel at home. The country itself is beautiful with a lot to offer the outdoor enthusiast or architecture lover. It is also so easy to travel around Europe from Germany as it is almost centrally located. Anything over 50 euros is tax free so if you get posted to Germany I suggest buying a new car whilst there as it saves you a lot of money. The closure of the bases will put a strain on the UK as many new bases will need to be located and built. The time frame they have allocated for this all to happen concerns many of my fellow soldiers as we feel such a short timeline will result in substandard construction of accommodation and other facilities. We are also concerned as we will be moving from a country where we are liked and that offers us great benefits, back to one where it is the opposite. Due to our trade being heavily involved in ammunition inspection and movements, we will be one of the last to depart Germany. I have been applying to stay on in Germany and now with my new promotion it may be possible for me to do so.

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