Explosive Ordnance Disposal squad: Yes, N.J. has one — and it’s used more often than you’d think

Specially trained EOD team at Joint Base called to handle artillery shells, explosives found in buildings, homes and yards throughout state

Imagine starting to dig a hole in your backyard when your shovel clangs against something just a few feet below the surface. You take a closer look and, hard as it is to believe, you have uncovered a dirt-caked artillery shell.

This scenario is not at all far-fetched. In fact, New Jerseyans finding artillery shells or other kinds of explosives or old weapons in homes, buildings, yards and fields across the Garden State happens more frequently than you would think.

A thermite device is used on a simulated anti-tank land mine, causing it to melt.

Which begs the question — who exactly do you call if you come upon a weapon of war on your property? After all, directories are not exactly brimming with businesses boasting the expertise to extract and dispose of weapons and explosives.

There is a group that specializes in this unique and often dangerous work — the Explosive Ordnance Disposal squad at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst (ordnance is defined as any military supply, including weapons, ammunition and vehicles and, in a more specific context of military parlance, ordnance can refer specifically to explosives from cannons or artillery).

This unit of 20-25 specially trained experts is part of the 87th Air Base Wing’s Civil Engineering Group.

EOD specialists are broadly and thoroughly trained to handle all types of dangerous explosives, whether foreign or domestic in origin. On any given day, they might scan or deal with suspicious mail or packages, or they might consult, identify, evaluate, retrieve and, when required, neutralize and defuse dangerous explosive devices anywhere in the state or in neighboring states or overseas.

How can it be that there are so many old weapons and ordnance scattered about a state as developed and populated as New Jersey?

“People find shells and rockets underground in areas where the military used to conduct artillery training a long time ago,” said Tech Sgt. Matthew Morris, the section chief of quality assurance for EOD.

“Many who fought in America’s wars brought home souvenirs from the battlefields,” Morris explained. “We get calls from people who find shells, grenades or weapons in their attics or closets or basements, some dating as far back as World War I or World War II. Some of these devices are live. It’s a wonder more don’t go off.”

Morris said EOD also gets calls from police departments and courthouses across the state. “They are looking to get rid of evidence boxes from trials which took place long ago and, while they are going through the boxes, sometimes they find weapons or explosives that had been evidence in a trial. They call us to evaluate the danger level of these objects.”

Morris said that, sometimes, EOD provides the answers by looking at photos sent to them and, sometimes, specialists need to go on-site to make a proper evaluation.

“You have to study the explosive,” Morris said. “You need to know what makes it angry.”


The EOD squad conducts regular training programs where, among other things, they work on ways to diffuse or neutralize explosives.

On a Tuesday morning in April, an EOD team assembled for a training session at the Fort Dix demolition range, one of the open fields that surround the outskirts of the base.

Tech Sgts. John Hull, left, and Matt Morris during a safety briefing before a training session.

Training sessions always begin with a safety briefing. The range safety officer reviews aloud the safety procedures one by one and each person’s role, and responsibility during the training exercise is discussed. The safety guidelines have been compiled, codified and refined by EOD members over many years.

“The goal is to expose the minimum number of people to the minimum number of explosives for the minimum amount of time,” said Miller.

The EOD team posts red flags on the road outside the training ground to notify passing motorists that the training range is active. A firefighting team on the base is notified ahead of the training and they are ready to respond if needed.

And, in the days prior to the exercise, the Joint Base notifies neighboring communities of this training session and the probability they will hear some loud explosions.

The first training exercise on this April morning was to neutralize an anti-tank mine. The mine is about the circumference of a dinner plate — though considerably bulkier.

The newer generation of land mines contain heavier explosives than their predecessors; many times, they are now encased in plastic to make them harder to detect, they have more sophisticated fuses and “anti-handling” devices, which make them considerably more difficult and dangerous to remove.

The exercise on this day is to neutralize the mine not by removing it, but by melting it with thermite devices. Thermite is an incendiary chemical, and it generates intense heat sufficient to melt metal.

To begin the exercise, a replica anti-tank mine (with no explosive capability) is buried in the ground just as it might be found in a battle theater or on a roadside in hostile territory. The first thing EOD would do is render the fuse inoperative. How they do this depends on the type of mine it is.

The team then builds a wall of sand and dirt completely around the mine, and carefully places the thermite devices on and around it.

The team clears the area and the thermite devices are ignited. The thermite covers the mine in moments. The wall of dirt and sand keeps the thermite from running off and prevents the intense heat from dissipating. The mine quickly melts. Neutralization successful.

The remainder of the training session focuses on triggering explosive devices from safe distances. A safe distance is determined using what is called a “K factor,” which is a calculation done before the training session begins.

“The K factor is always determined before any ordnance is exploded,” said Tech Sgt. John Hull, an operation section chief and team leader for EOD. “The calculation involves determining the type and size of the explosive and how far the concussion will carry.”

The lessons learned in training sessions such as these makes EOD a valuable commodity to the military and to law enforcement groups in the U.S. and overseas.

For instance, EOD Tech Sgt. Moises Gonzalez, a logistics chief for EOD who was present at the April training session, has travelled overseas, where he has met with both military and law enforcement groups to review safety procedures for evaluating and neutralizing explosives.

After his visit, Gonzalez was lauded by his peers for “his dedication to promoting safety measures across borders and his commitment to ensuring the well-being of others in high stakes situations.”


One of the newest trends involving EOD is its collaboration with the Joint Base’s Innovation Lab to create more realistic and updated training ordnance in a more cost-effective and timely manner.

Much of this effort was spearheaded by Tech Sgt. Christopher Tolley, section chief of innovation for EOD.

“You have to study the explosive; you need to know what makes it angry.”

— Expert technicians at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, who train to extract and neutralize the most dangerous weapons of war

“From the time new ordnance hits the battlespace to when we are able to get a commercially relevant product that replicates that ordnance is a slow process,” said Tolley, “and, many times, it is prohibitively expensive.”

“We have created an environment where we can use 3-D printing to help provide rapid response and adaptability to newer ordnance,” Tolley said. “If we see a new improvised device being utilized by our adversaries, we can use images of it to create a 3-D model and then make it 3-D printable so we can use it for training purposes and enhance our team’s readiness.”

“The ability to scan ordnance and recreate it on a 3-D printer probably saves about $250,000 worth of training aids from commercial suppliers,” Hull estimated.


EOD handles dozens of calls each month. A testament to the volume and variety of the unit’s work can be found at a facility it manages on the Fort Dix side of the Joint Base.

Here, the team keeps a museum-worthy collection of artifacts they have found in the Garden State and other places — bullets, handguns, rifles, automatic weapons, bombs, grapeshot, grenades, mines, swords, homemade explosives and Improvised Explosive Devices.

All of the artifacts are demilled, which is a process of rendering them unusable for their intended purpose. In other words, they are safe to store in the facility. The oldest items in the collection date to the American Revolution.

And they keep adding to the collection every day.