Sgt. Major Paved Way For Elite Special Forces EOD Techs
by U.S. Army Walter Ham, 20th CBRNE Command
January 20, 2023
If you have spent much time on
military-related social media platforms, you’ve probably seen some
of the memes featuring a seasoned U.S. Army sergeant major with a
Master Explosive Ordnance Disposal Badge and Combat Infantry Badge.
The Army EOD technician behind those memes is retired U.S. Army
Sgt. Major Mike R. Vining, one of the founding members of the 1st
Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (Airborne) and one of
the unit’s first EOD technicians.
U.S. Army Sgt. Major Mike R.
Vining, one of the founding members of the 1st Special
Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (Airborne) and one of
the unit’s first EOD technicians, retired from the U.S. Army
in 1999. Vining participated in many of the American
military operations that defined the latter part of the 20th
century, as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician and an
elite Special Forces Operator. (Courtesy photo by Ret. U.S.
Army SGM Mike R. Vining - January 1, 1999)
The reason his Army career has gained so
much attention is because Vining has participated in many of the
American military operations that defined the latter part of the
20th century, as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician and an
elite Special Forces Operator.
Growing up in Howard City,
Michigan, Vining was interested in science and mountain climbing. He
received chemistry sets for Christmas every year and earned the
Grand Prize in a High School Science Fair for a Wilson Cloud
Chamber. Vining was also a member of the Science Club and Chess Club
and participated in wrestling and track.
Vining then watched a movie that changed the trajectory of his life.
“I saw a World War II movie about a British soldier disarming a
large German bomb in an underground chamber in London, England,”
said Vining. “I thought, wow, that must take a lot to disarm a large
At 17, not long after the Tet Offensive in the
Vietnam War, Vining went to an Army recruiting office and signed up
to be an Ammunition Renovation Specialist with the plan of
volunteering for EOD as soon as possible. After graduating from
basic training camp at Fort Knox, Kentucky, he went to Ammunition
Renovation School on Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, where he learned how
to destroy unserviceable Code H ammunition during a course that was
taught by EOD technicians.
He attended EOD training on Fort
McClellan, Alabama, and Indian Head, Maryland, and graduated in May
While serving with the Technical Escort Unit at
Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland, he volunteered to serve in Vietnam and
he spent 11 months with the 99th Ordnance Detachment (EOD) in Phuoc
Vinh, Vietnam, in an area west of Saigon and near the Cambodia
Two of the most memorable EOD operations of his
career happened in 1970 when he participated in the destruction of
the Rock Island East and Warehouse Hill enemy weapons and ammunition
caches in Cambodia.
Vining was part of the seven-man Army EOD
team that supported the 1st Cavalry Division mission to secure and
destroy the largest weapons and ammunition cache discovered during
the U.S. military’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
“Rock Island East” after the Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois, the
enemy weapons cache had 932 individual weapons and 85 crew-served
weapons as well as 7,079,694 small arms and machine gun rounds. The
enemy cache also contained almost a thousand rounds of 85mm
artillery shells that were used for the D-44 howitzer and the T-34
Vining and the EOD techs had to dodge enemy fire and
endure biting red ants while working on the cache. After setting up
“scare charges” to keep enemy forces out of the security perimeter,
Vining made it on the helicopter in time to watch the explosion and
see the mushroom cloud that was visible from 50 miles away. The
seven Army EOD technicians at Rock Island East used 300 cases of C4
explosives to destroy 327 tons of enemy munitions.
the operation to seize the cache site, 10 American Soldiers died and
20 were injured.
Later at the Warehouse Hill operation in
Cambodia, the EOD team had to disarm booby traps and crawl into
underground tunnels to place C4 explosives on 14 cache sites. Vining
had to contend with large cave crickets, poisonous centipedes,
spiders, bats and scorpions in the narrow tunnels. The teams used
120 cases of C4 explosives to destroy hundreds of thousands of enemy
After completing his tour in Vietnam, Vining left the
Army and returned home to Michigan. He got a job at a plant that
stamped out automotive body parts for Ford Motor Company and then
became the lead employee on the third shift of the largest press in
the plant, a 500-ton press.
“Although it was very good pay,
I did not see myself doing this for 20 to 30 years,” said Vining.
“In October of 1973, I saw my Army recruiter and asked to go back
into the Army.”
The U.S. Army recruiter told Vining that he
would have to serve as an EOD technician again, which was exactly
what he wanted. He was assigned to the 63rd Ordnance Detachment
(EOD) on Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
Vining was serving on a
U.S. Secret Service support mission when his EOD supervisor, Sgt.
Maj. Kenneth Ray Foster, Sr., was killed by an improvised explosive
device at the Quincy Compressor Division Plant in Illinois, in 1976.
Afterward, Vining thought it was time for a change.
decided to take Emergency Medical Technician training and following
that I decided to volunteer to be a Special Forces medic,” said
Vining. “I was getting out of EOD when my control sergeant major
told me that they were forming a new Special Forces organization at
Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and that they were looking for six EOD
Vining called the number and flew to Fort Bragg,
North Carolina, for an interview with Col. “Chargin’ Charlie”
Beckwith, the founder of the 1st Special Forces Operational
Detachment-Delta. Beckwith envisioned the concept that the U.S. Army
should have a counterterrorism unit like the British Special Air
“Two weeks later, I was one of four Army EOD techs
to start the Operator Training Course 1,” said Vining. “Only two of
us made it through. The second person was (retired Sgt. Maj.) Dennis
One of the unit’s first operations was the
clandestine mission to rescue 53 American hostages at the U.S.
Embassy in Tehran, Iran. Known as Operation Eagle Claw, the rescue
mission was cancelled after the loss of three helicopters during a
sandstorm at the staging site known as Desert One. While the
aircraft were leaving the Desert One staging area, a RH-53D
helicopter crashed into the transport aircraft that Vining and his
team was on.
The helicopter rotor chopped into the top of the
fuel-laden aircraft and a fireball shot by Vining and his team. As
the EC-130E “Bladder Bird” was engulfed in flames and munitions
cooked off around them, Vining and his teammates made it off the
aircraft. Vining and his team got on another aircraft with faulty
landing gear and just enough fuel to make it across the water to
During the Desert One aircraft collision, eight
American troops were killed and both aircraft were destroyed.
Joint Special Operations Command was created as a result of the
investigation that followed the ill-fated rescue mission.
October 1983 during Operation Urgent Fury, when U.S. forces invaded
the Caribbean Island of Grenada following the pro-Cuban coup there,
Vining was on a rescue team sent to free political prisoners at the
Richmond Hill Prison.
His Blackhawk helicopter came under
intense enemy anti-aircraft fire on approach to the prison facility
and the mission had to be delayed.
The political prisoners
were released before a second mission was launched.
seven years of serving with distinction in Delta Force, Vining
accepted an assignment with the 176th Ordnance Detachment (EOD) on
Fort Richardson, Alaska. He made the move to be more promotable
within the EOD community and to be close to the mountains of the
While in Alaska, he maintained his proficiency
for EOD missions and later came back to twice climb the 20,310-foot
Mount Denali, the highest mountain in North America.
one year, he was back at the 1st Special Forces Operational
Detachment-Delta, where he would serve in Operation Desert Storm.
Although his EOD duties didn’t change, Vining switched to infantry
during this time to make himself more promotable within the elite
Special Forces unit.
During this second 1st Special Forces
Operational Detachment-Delta tour, Vining also participated in
Operation Pocket Planner during a Federal Penitentiary prison riot
in Atlanta in 1987.
Vining would later serve at the Joint
Special Operations Command as an exercise planner and J-3 Special
Plans sergeant major. He was the Joint Special Operations Task Force
senior enlisted advisor aboard the aircraft carrier USS America (CV
66) during Operation Uphold Democracy in Haiti.
major also served as an explosive investigator on the task force
that investigated the 1996 Khobar Tower bombing in Dharan, Saudi
Arabia, and he used the lessons learned from that attack to help
hardened U.S. installations around the world.
three decades in uniform, Vining earned the Combat Infantry Badge,
Master Explosive Ordnance Disposal Badge, Parachutist Badge,
Military Free Fall Parachutist Badge and Austrian Police High Alpine
Vining racked up a huge
stack of medals and ribbons that include the Legion of Merit Medal,
Bronze Star Medal, two Defense Meritorious Service Medals, Army
Meritorious Service Medal, Joint Service Commendation Medal, Army
Commendation Medal, two Joint Service Achievement Medals and the
Army Achievement Medal. He also earned his Bachelor of Science
Degree in Sociology from the University of the State of New York.
Vining said he was glad when the U.S. Army established the 28th
Ordnance Company (EOD) (Airborne) to support U.S. Army Ranger and
Special Forces missions around the world, as well as the two
Airborne Platoons of the 722nd Ordnance Company (EOD) and 767th
Ordnance Company (EOD) to support the 82nd Airborne Division’s
Immediate Response Force mission.
The Fort Bragg, North
Carolina-based companies are all part of 192nd EOD Battalion, 52nd
EOD Group and 20th Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear,
Explosives (CBRNE) Command, the U.S. military’s premier all hazards
Vining said that the Kirtland Air Force Base, New
Mexico-headquartered 21stOrdnance Company (EOD WMD) was another
welcome addition to the U.S. Army EOD units. The highly specialized
company is part of the 71st EOD Group and 20th CBRNE Command.
From 19 bases in 16 states, Soldiers and U.S. Army civilians
from 20th CBRNE Command take on the world’s most dangerous hazards
in support of joint, interagency and allied operations.
my time, Army EOD was viewed as Combat Service Support, but in
reality, Army EOD is Combat Support and has always been that way and
that means supporting Special Operations and Airborne forces,” said
Vining said the key to success in the EOD profession
is noncommissioned officer (NCO) leadership and mentorship.
“Mentorship is one of the duties of a senior NCO,” he said.
The Army EOD community marked its 80th anniversary in 2022 and NCOs
have played a critical role in the EOD profession since its
inception. Led by noncommissioned officers, EOD teams often serve on
their own in austere environments, covering vast operational areas.
Vining also encouraged EOD techs to seek help for both the seen
and unseen scars of war that come with the profession.
believe if you spend a career in EOD that you will witness severe
injuries and death,” he said. “EOD is an inherently dangerous career
but it is also a very rewarding career knowing you have eliminated a
“If you are suffering from events that
you were involved in, you are not alone in dealing with this kind of
trauma. I encourage you to open up and just talk about it to a
fellow EOD tech or an EOD veteran,” said Vining. “From World War II
to the present, we have all witnessed the horrors of war and even
the dangerous job we do in peacetime.”
In January 1999,
Vining retired from the U.S. Army and married his wife Donna
Ikenberry, a hiking guidebook author, professional wildlife
photographer and freelance photojournalist. They were engaged at the
top of Mount Rainer in Washington and exchanged wedding vows on
Mauna Kea, the highest mountain in Hawaii.
Today, they live
together in South Fork, Colorado, where Vining continues to enjoy
spelunking, skiing, rock climbing and mountaineering. He also
remains active in the veteran’s community.
inducted into the U.S. Army Ordnance Corps Hall of Fame in 2018.
When he hung up his highly decorated uniform after nearly three
decades of service, Vining said he never knew that his storied
career would later launch a tidal wave of memes.
“I do not
know how any of the memes got started,” said Vining. “One of my
grandchildren saw that someone even did a Pokémon card on me.”
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