ECBC Scientists Gain Insight Directly From Warfighters

The latest generation of chemical and biological agent detectors available to U.S. warfighters are marvels of modern science and engineering. However, they are only useful if warfighters are able to use them at a moment’s notice.

In the field, it is very likely for a warfighter to be wearing full combat gear and an extra layer of protective equipment, including butyl gloves and a protective mask. The warfighter will be sweating and have hindered vision. Add in dim lighting and the warfighter could find it very difficult to read and operate a detection instrument. In order to gain a greater appreciation of these challenges, a select group of Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC) scientists traveled in October to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. to participate in an innovative new program called Scientist in the Foxhole.

Created by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) in partnership with the U.S. Army 20th CBRNE Command at the beginning of 2015, the program embeds scientists who work on chemical and biological solutions with the warfighters who actually use them once they are fielded. The October trip to Fort Irwin was just the second program event held thus far. A total of eight scientists from across the DTRA’s Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Enterprise were selected to participate. Three of them were ECBC scientists Jennifer Sekowski, Ph.D.; Alex Miklos, Ph.D.; and Jason Guicheteau, Ph.D.

“When we arrived, the installation was engaged in a massive training exercise, a force of 5,000 Soldiers against a red team of 1,000 Soldiers staged as an insurgency in a fictitious Middle East country,” said Sekowski. “The National Training Center is over 1,000 square miles with terrain and temperature extremes that closely resemble the conditions in the Middle East. The Army had even set up mock villages, and with the help of ECBC training personnel, mock chemical and biological production laboratories and storage areas.”

Seeing from the Warfighter’s Perspective The group of three was embedded with the 759th Explosives Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Company for an EOD demonstration. They were accompanied by Lt. Col. Mary Miller, who manages the program for the 20th CBRNE and holds a Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology. “The 759th performed a demonstration for the scientists using chemical detectors, robots and chemical simulants. The scientists got to see the kinds of chemical munitions Soldiers face in the field, and how their protective equipment restricts their motions and dexterity,” said Miller. “They even got to try on bomb suits.”

“The weight and the heat of the bomb suits was oppressive,” said Sekowski. “You can’t hear very well and you can only see directly in front of you. You feel very disconnected from the outside world. Wearing butyl gloves removes your fine motor skills so you can’t push small buttons. The experience gave me an entirely new appreciation of what user-friendly handheld detection devices means for these Soldiers.”

Improvising to Accomplish the Mission “What really struck me was how routine it is for Soldiers to simply tape a Joint Chemical Agent Detector to a PackBot or a Talon (military robot), using both its chemical/biological and explosives sensors as well as its camera to poke around the crevices and concealed parts of a threat area,” said Miklos. “What I took away from that is the importance of hands-free devices for their battlefield function. They could really use robots and detection devices that are self-sniffing and self-wiping to get samples.”

“But they are only one of our user groups. We didn’t get a chance to embed with the 2nd Chemical Battalion which does the actual site exploitation, conducting forensic investigations and decontamination in the chemical and biological production labs,” added Miklos. “The 2nd Chemical Battalion is more hands-on with our devices, but they have severe time constraints, so they could use detectors that provide quick results.”

Just the Start This is just the kind of attitude Miller was looking for in selecting scientists to participate. “I look for insatiable curiosity and the desire to solve problems,” said Miller. Looking forward, she wants to bring in more engineers, and ultimately, she would like to have Soldiers come to the laboratories. “These Soldiers love what they do. Many go home and read about the science and engineering involved. I think it would be great if some of these Soldiers were inspired to pursue advanced science and engineering degrees.”

Her long-term goal for the program is to have the two groups stimulate each other’s thinking about chemical and biological technology. “I would like every new chemical biological innovation to be something that enhances how Soldiers do their job, not just the technology that happens to be available,” she said.