In the midst of the debate about whether women can be on the front lines in war, Nichole Kelly Robinette has been in front of the front lines.

As a Navy explosive ordnance disposal technician, the St. Paul native just returned from a deployment in northern Afghanistan, where her unit was responsible for detonating over 30,000 pounds of explosives. Those who know the St. Paul Central High School graduate give much of the credit to her Minnesota roots for developing the demeanor and tenacity required to be a member of the elite unit, the Navy equivalent of the "Hurt Locker" people.

"If there was one person I would want to stand between me and a bomb and be able to disarm it, it would be her," said longtime friend Emily Sande, who remembers Robinette as a little girl dismantling an old rotary phone and then methodically putting it back together.

The Pentagon has announced it is opening 14,000 combat-related jobs for female service members, a change designed to acknowledge the expanded role women have played in modern warfare. Despite the announcement, women still will not be permitted to serve in frontline fighting units such as Special Forces or infantries.

Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) units may not be considered part of the front lines, but they work closely with special operations forces like the Navy SEALs. They also are responsible for clearing roads and buildings for military convoys, driving in front in heavily armored vehicles with nicknames like the Husky, employing remote-controlled robots called Devil Pups and donning protective bomb suits that resemble something an astronaut would wear.

Although joining such a unit was the reason she enlisted after college in 2006, it wasn't easy for Robinette to get the job she wanted. The training process is physically and mentally rigorous, with no distinction made for gender. She failed physical tests for upper body strength and the requirements were the same, regardless of whether the candidate was a man or a woman. She took an assignment on a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and continued to work on her strength and to work her way up to a rank where she could apply.

"I wanted a job that was physically active and mentally challenging," she said. "I put everything I had into getting strong enough."

Silly Putty bombs

Now 32, Robinette seemed born to blow things up. As a girl, she held her own in frequent tangles with three brothers during hockey games, and she preferred the company of GI Joes as much as Barbies. When she played with Silly Putty, she pretended to make bombs. Now she handles the real thing, C4 explosive. Going "Up North" as a girl, she constantly brought with her fins, snorkel and mask.

"If I look back on my life, it's like, I've been pretending to do this for a long time," Robinette said.

To become an EOD technician, a sailor must complete two weeks of dive prep class, almost three months of dive school, 11 months of EOD school, then complete parachute school and tactical training. The process can take nearly two years.

While men dropped out during dive school, experience as a lifeguard and getting scuba certification during college made Robinette more comfortable in tests that required her to do things like tread water in a pool for 15 minutes with two air tanks on her back. She had to pass dexterity and mental tests where one failure meant being dropped from the training.

Training the Afghan army

During a six-month deployment in Afghanistan, her first, Robinette's unit did not encounter any direct attacks but worked with the Afghan army, training them on improving their bomb-disposal skills. She was the first female EOD tech.

"They didn't seem to have any problem with me at all," she said of the Afghan soldiers. "Once I introduced myself and they got used to seeing me, it wasn't an issue. They didn't say, 'Hey, don't bring that girl over here' or anything like that."

Robinette, now stationed in San Diego, would not say how she feels about the Pentagon's new policy expanding the roles of women, and the Navy allowed her to speak about her job on the condition that the policy not be brought up during an interview. She acknowledges, though, that being a woman in an elite military unit continues to get attention.

"I would say that people who aren't used to seeing females who are capable and strong in certain roles, once they do see us doing things, they are a little more shocked and surprised," she said. "As far as a level of respect, I didn't see any change versus the other people I work with."

The numbers for women in her field still remain low. Of the 1,592 active duty and reserve officers and enlisted personnel in the Navy's EOD program, 27 are women. She remains unusual enough that Robinette is the focus of a Navy recruitment video that shows her performing pull-ups, climbing a rope ladder and detonating explosives with an authoritative "FIRE IN THE HOLE. FIRE IN THE HOLE. FIRE IN THE HOLE."

Within a month, she'll begin training for another deployment. She has a little more than a year left in her first enlistment commitment and plans on continuing to work in EOD. "It's kind of like a treasure hunt," Robinette said. "But you aren't looking for good treasure, you're looking for bad treasure."

Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434