Story and photos by U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Mark Patton
CAMP BONDSTEEL, Kosovo – U.S. Army 1st Lt. Erin Schneider appears calm and collected on the outside. It’s an appearance she maintains even while conducting what is arguably the most dangerous mission in Kosovo.
The 23-year-old officer is currently serving as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team commander in Kosovo as part of the Kosovo Force, the NATO-led peace support operation commonly referred to as KFOR. Schneider’s Fort Riley, Kansas-based unit, the 774th Ordnance Company, EOD, is currently part of KFOR’s Multinational Battle Group-East, which is located at Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo.
Schneider’s team is regularly tasked to assist the Kosovo Security Force with the detonation and disposal of discovered explosives from previous conflicts.
"People say that driving is the most dangerous thing in Kosovo, but they obviously haven’t spoken to us,” Schneider said.
Becoming a Soldier
Schneider is a native of Elgin, Illinois, which is located northwest of Chicago, and her desire to join the military started in high school even though her family doesn’t have a military background. Schneider skipped the 8th grade and was able to excel academically in high school, which resulted in her graduation at the age of 16.
Upon entering Winona State University in Minnesota at the age of 17, Schneider played on the school’s golf team as a freshman, earning in-state tuition for her prowess on the links. As a sophomore, Schneider’s itch to join the military returned, and she started with the Reserve Officer Training Corps, or ROTC, program at Winona State and worked with a guard unit.
Her dedication to the program was evident to classmates and fellow troops as Schneider opted to skip her university graduation in order to attend one final annual training session with her guard unit.
Schneider was commissioned in 2014 following her graduation and she was branched ordnance. During an interview, she was pre-selected to join the EOD community.
"It seemed like the most challenging job I could get into,” said Schneider. "Danger made it more attractive.”
At Fort Riley, Schneider was able to test her leadership chops out of the gate as she served as a platoon leader with the 774th Ordnance Co. Late last year, Schneider and her troops headed to the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany, to prepare for their upcoming peacekeeping and training mission in Kosovo.
Serving in Kosovo
Schneider and her team have stayed busy since their arrival last year in the eastern portion of Kosovo. They often receive more than five calls a week from people or organizations that are requesting removal or detonation of found explosives. These unexploded ordnance are mainly remnants from World War II and the Yugoslav Wars.
Along with her platoon sergeant, Schneider leads a trifecta of two-person teams to go out on missions along with the partnering KSF personnel. Schneider’s team will also occasionally work with various non-governmental agencies, such as ones concerned with humanitarian demining missions.
Once they are on the scene of a possible unexploded ordnance, the crew determines whether to detonate it in place or move it to a specific area. A variety of factors go into that decision, including what condition the ordnance is in.
Whether grenades, smaller munitions released from larger cluster bombs, or mines, Schneider credits the training of personnel as a key to remaining focused and calm.
"Our risks are calculated, our procedures have been tested many times,” said Schneider. "We all know our job, and everybody I work with is proficient and great at their job. It doesn’t feel like a danger to us because we know what we’re doing.”
Schneider noted that sometimes they’ll have to turn around cars or make sure folks don’t enter a certain area. She said the reaction of the local population is usually one of gratitude.
"They’re appreciative of what we’re doing,” said Schneider.
The team of KFOR EOD specialists also offers mine awareness training to personnel across the KFOR footprint in order to educate them. For example, Schneider said one explosive troops may encounter, dubbed 97 BLU, looks like a decomposed energy drink can.
There are also calls that take time and personnel that end up being false alarms. For example, just last month her team responded to a call from a gentleman who was digging a hole and thought he found something suspicious. It turned out that it was just trash, but Schneider credited him for not touching it and calling the appropriate authorities. These calls, Schneider said, are ones they don’t mind responding to.
"We’d rather run 300 calls of trash than one post blast,” said Schneider.
Sometimes, Schneider’s team will cover down on the western part of Kosovo as well. It’s an opportunity for the American troops in the east to gain valuable experience from their multinational counterparts in the western portions of the country.
"We try to train with Swiss and Austrians, they’re very good at what they do,” said Schneider.
When Schneider does have some down time in Kosovo, she’s not one to just sit back and relax. Besides knitting, Schneider said she competes in a volleyball league with her platoon and she’s also training for a marathon.
"I’m a multi-tasker…I hate just watching TV, I need to do lots of things at once,” said Schneider.
Growing as a leader
Schneider said her deployment to Kosovo has offered her a chance to excel as a leader and grow her team.
"The team bonded right away, we all just clicked,” said Schneider. "We choose to be with each other even when we don’t have to. It comes naturally to us.”
Although the team shares the common bond of serving in a job whose unofficial motto is "Initial success or total failure”, it’s more than the shared skill set that brings them together.
"They know that I care, so they care,” said Schneider. "I care about our mission, but I also care about them.”
Schneider said being in such a small career field in the Army and meeting troops with desire, motivation and drive has made her experiences so far in her young career special. She credits the team for doing everything they can to mentor her and make her the best officer that she can be.
Sgt. 1st Class Randy Walker serves as the EOD team noncommissioned officer in charge for Schneider’s crew, and the 19-year Army veteran with four deployments under his belt said Schneider will leave the KFOR mission as a very experienced lieutenant.
"She’s very driven, and she’s positive pretty much about everything,” said Walker. "There are lots of people clamoring for these types of deployments.”
Walker said she offers a fresh outlook to the team, and he said her confidence is something that’s expected in their line of work. Walker also mentioned the leadership growth he sees in the young officer.
"She’s growing, still working on what kind of officer she’s going to be, and I’m happy to contribute to that,” Walker said.
As for being a female in a dangerous job, it doesn’t faze Schneider.
"As a female in the military, I haven’t felt any different,” said Schneider. "You just have to be confident in what you do.”
When asked about having a female team leader in EOD, Walker smiled and relayed a story he was a part of years ago.
Walker recalled a suit test, where potential EOD candidates are required to don the 80-pound EOD suit and perform a variety of tasks, such as running and carrying objects. Walker was there to offer his recommendation for potential EOD troops. He said there was an infantry male Soldier there who everybody thought would breeze through the test. He said there was also a female officer participating with a hurt back.
"The infantry male puked and quit,” said Walker. "The female LT got my recommendation.”
Planning for the future
Schneider has her sights set on eventually becoming a company commander, and she expects to attend the Army’s Captains Career Course shortly after her return to Kansas.
Although she’s unsure about whether she’ll be able to stay on with EOD, as the career field is competitive and cutting back on numbers, she’s still dedicated to her goal.
"I could possibly go to logistics, it would be a new challenge” said Schneider. "My ultimate goal would be to stay and command an EOD unit, but I will do my best wherever they put me.”
Schneider said she’s not looking too far into the future, but could see herself going back to law school, either on the military or civilian side.
As for her platoon leader, he’s hoping she can stick around the field and continue to lead EOD troops.
"It would definitely be a loss if she can’t stay in the career field,” said Walker.
• Allied Joint Force Command Naples will publish a series of articles highlighting female KFOR troops and their accomplishments. The next article will be released on the following date:
Feb. 14, 2017: Italian Warrant Officer Sara Sapienza