Bomb squads from the U.S. and Estonia partner to save lives

Thursday, October 01, 2015

The smoke billowed around a young man who lay bleeding and barely breathing on the sandy ground.

His injuries had come from a treasure hunt gone bad: he had struck a half-buried bomb with the blade of his shovel. His right hand and foot were severed in the explosion.

All was quiet as the smoke thinned and cleared.


The crew members shifted their camera gear, and the young man – an actor – relaxed for a few minutes before filming another take in the scene.

The scene, with the smoke, was among the last of the shots captured in a joint Maryland National Guard-Estonian Rescue Board film project shot in Tallinn, Estonia.

The purpose of the project was to raise awareness of and educate the public about the unexploded ordnance, or UXO, in Estonia, said Arno Pugonen, chief of the Explosive Ordinance (EOD) Center.

"If you are playing with explosives, there are only two real possibilities," said Pugonen, describing a key message from the film project.

"You will go to prison, or you are injured or dead."

After World Wars I and II and the 1944-1991 Soviet occupation, Estonia was left with hundreds of thousands of bombs, mortars, missiles, and landmines riddling the country, and the danger they pose is very real.

Demining efforts continue on a daily basis.

In addition to locating and destroying bombs, educating the public about UXOs is one of the primary objectives of the Humanitarian Mining Action, or HMA, program, which in Estonia falls under U.S. Army Europe.

The HMA program provides resources for operations and training to agencies including Estonia’s Rescue Board.

In the case of the film project, the HMA program brought the rescue board and Maryland National Guard soldiers together to create four public service announcements.

The Maryland National Guard and Estonia are partners under the National Guard’s State Partnership Program.

The partnership began in 1993 to assist with the Baltic state’s transition to an independent nation after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"The HMA program is one of the best connections between the U.S. and Estonia," Pugonen said. "It’s very constructive."

Plans for the video project began more than three years ago under the guidance of Army Maj. Tracy J. Sullins, who was the bilateral affairs officer between the Maryland National Guard and Estonia.

Sullins recently turned over his duties to Air Force Capt. Daniel Griffin.

Sullins said he wanted to connect Maryland National Guard medical and public affairs teams with the Estonian Rescue Board to boost the rescue board’s emergency services and public relations capabilities.

Since 2012, Maryland medical teams have visited their Estonian counterparts twice to share training aids and knowledge.

The artificial limbs, which were included in the medical training aids, were used in the commercial. Maryland public affairs crews have made the journey four times to coach first responders on public relations, to train them on camera equipment, and – most recently – to create commercials to educate the public about UXOs.

"It’s not often that a bilateral relations officer gets to see a program go all the way through. This is it: this is the culminating event," said Sullins, after watching the completed commercials. "It’s kind of a bittersweet moment."

Explosive-related fatalities, such as the young treasure hunters, used to be common occurrences in Estonia.

Since 2012, however, no one has died from a UXO explosion.