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Inside the heads of 'Hurt Locker' bomb defusers

By John Blake, CNN
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Real life 'Hurt Locker'
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "The Hurt Locker" highlights special breed of soldier
  • Bomb disposal soldiers rate authenticity of "The Hurt Locker"
  • Soldier talks about tense moments disarming bombs
  • Bomb disposal soldier: "You get into a zone."

(CNN) -- When Henry Engelhardt III is driving, an odd thought will sometimes pop into his head.

"I'm going over a bridge and I sometimes think: 'How would I blow this bridge?' " Engelhardt says.

Engelhardt doesn't like planting bombs under bridges. He just can't stop thinking like a bomb maker. For 20 years, he defused bombs as a member of assorted U.S. Army EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) units. Even today, he misses the adrenalin rush.

"It's the best fun thing in the world, a continuing challenge," says Engelhardt, who served in Vietnam and retired as a major. "You're up against the mind of another person."

Engelhardt's "fun" included hearing the timer on a bomb run out while he was in the middle of disabling the device, teaching a jittery man on the other end of a telephone line how to dismantle a live bomb the man had just found and taking apart fiendishly clever booby traps that could have vaporized him if he made the wrong move.

We don't let children blow things up. But we're big kids in adult bodies. We blow things up.
--U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Kieran Flynn

Engelhardt's job nostalgia may be hard to understand. But the recent success of the Oscar-nominated movie "The Hurt Locker" may change that. The film follows the exploits of a daredevil EOD sergeant. The movie has earned nine Academy Award nominations, but it also has raised a question among some viewers: How real is its portrayal of bomb disposal soldiers?

Engelhardt and two active EOD soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan say "The Hurt Locker" nailed some details about their jobs. Yet their profession is still misunderstood.

Hollywood versus reality

"It had its Hollywood aspect," says U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Kieran Flynn, who has done two tours in Iraq as an EOD soldier. "I liked the movie, and I like the attention it's bringing to EOD units. But when you're an expert, you can tell Hollywood is there."

Take the signature image of "The Hurt Locker" -- an EOD soldier encased in a clunky protective suit, dressed like some soot-covered astronaut, walking toward a live bomb like a gunslinger. It's the image on most "Hurt Locker" movie posters.

Video: Deadly world of bomb disposal
Video: From the Pentagon to Hollywood
Video: 'The Hurt Locker'

EOD soldiers say the suits are real. They weigh about 74 pounds and can cost $13,000. But most EOD soldiers dismantle bombs from a distance with remote-controlled robots, some of which can weigh as much as 350 pounds. The film implies EOD soldiers don suits all the time, some say.

"That was definitely a hard thing to swallow," Flynn says. "That's a last resort, to put on a bomb suit and walk down-range to approach a device."

Some EOD officers were also ambivalent about the depiction of "The Hurt Locker's" main character, the daredevil EOD staff sergeant played by actor Jeremy Renner.

Renner, who earned a best actor Oscar nomination for his role, plays a hyper, impulsive character who is as combustible as the bombs he dismantles. He seems to rely more on instinct, not technical knowledge, to dismantle bombs.

Renner's character's temperament wouldn't fit in with the job, some EOD officers say. Most EOD officers don't talk or sound like cowboys, they say. They approach their jobs more like scientists: detached and analytical.

"You get in a zone," says U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Michael Buras, who has done two tours as an EOD soldier in Afghanistan. "You can't have your mind too scattered."

Yet you can't think too much, says Engelhardt, the 20-year EOD veteran. Engelhardt is now the adjutant for The National Explosive Ordnance Disposal Association, a non-profit fraternal organization for active and retired EOD soldiers.

Engelhardt says he never liked to linger around a bomb site for too long, changing into his gear or getting equipment ready. Too much analysis can lead to paralysis, he says.

It's the best fun thing in the world, a continuing challenge. You're up against the mind of another person.
--Henry Engelhardt III
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"If you spend a lot of time changing clothes, pretty soon time is passing by and guys get too much time to think," Engelhardt says. "The best thing is to get in on it fast."

War movie screenwriter rates 'Hurt Locker'

Why they chose to defuse bombs

EOD soldiers have been around long before Iraq. The U.S. military started widely using EOD units during World War II to dispose of conventional bombs.

Today, EOD units are used for everything from providing protection to President Obama to clearing up bombing ranges and safeguarding nuclear weapons.

But as insurgents use more improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan, EOD units have become more known for battling insurgents.

What isn't known, though, is the answer to one question EOD soldiers often hear: Why would you want to fool around with bombs for a living?

Some EOD soldiers say it's the challenge, the thrill of outwitting an unseen opponent. The job also offers the chance to prevent the deaths of fellow soldiers and civilians. The job doesn't involve the remorse that comes from accidentally killing civilians or fighting for a questionable cause, some say.

"I wish everybody did a job that was visible and worthwhile," Engelhardt says. "You can see what you're doing and it's beneficial."

There's also a less noble reason: Some EOD soldiers like seeing things explode. During their job, they often have to detonate bombs.

"We don't let children blow things up. But we're big kids in adult bodies," Flynn says. "We blow things up."

When asked if they are ever afraid, some EOD soldiers say their training takes over. They're too immersed in the details to be terrified when they're trying to disarm a bomb, they say.

Yet some admit to tense moments.

"When you're working on something and you hear a timer running off, it tends to tighten you up a bit," Engelhardt says.

But they go out the next day and do it again, he says.

"That's what you train for," Engelhardt says. "It's like a fireman. Why does he go into the building?"

Not all EOD team members are immune to fear, though.

When asked if there was anything that made him afraid -- a certain type of bomb, or a specific booby-trap -- Flynn, the EOD officer who did two tours in Iraq, paused.

Then he chuckled before finally naming his big fear.

"I fear the dark. Ever since I was a kid, I was afraid of the dark. When the lights were out, I had to turn the lights on."