Soldiers, scientists combine chem-bio expertise

U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center scientists and members of the 759th Explosives Ordnance Company practice using a colorimetric method of detecting chemical war agent in munitions. (U.S. Army photo by ECBC Public Affairs)

ECBC Public Affairs

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (Dec. 10, 2015) — U.S. Army scientists traveled to the National Training Center in October to combine their technical expertise with Soldiers who use their chemical and biological solutions in the field.

To gain a greater appreciation of Soldiers’ challenges, eight scientists participated in a new program, Scientist in the Foxhole, at Fort Irwin, California.

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency created the program with the U.S. Army 20th CBRNE Command at the beginning of 2015. This trip was the program’s second event.

Scientists were selected from DTRA’s Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Enterprise. Three were ECBC scientists: Dr. Jennifer Sekowski, Dr. Alex Miklos and Dr. Jason Guicheteau.

“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,” Sekowski said. “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.”

Members of the 759th Explosives Ordnance Disposal Company help U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center scientist Jennifer Sekowski don a protective blast suit as part of the Scientist in the Foxhole program to introduce scientists to the practical problems of warfighters who confront chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive hazards. (U.S. Army photo by ECBC Public Affairs)

The group was embedded with the 759th Explosives Ordnance Disposal Company for an EOD demonstration. They were accompanied by Lt. Col. Mary Miller, who manages the program for the 20th CBRNE and holds a doctorate 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,” Miller said. “They even got to try on bomb suits.”

Sekowski said the experience gave him a new perspective on the difficulties of operating in a bomb suit.

“The weight and the heat of the bomb suits was oppressive,” Sekowski said. “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.”

Miklos said he saw the need for combining the capabilities of detection devices and robots.

“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,” Miklos said. “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. 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.”

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,” Miller said.

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.

Editor’s note: The U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to ensure decisive overmatch for unified land operations to empower the Army, the joint warfighter and our nation. RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command.

Originally published at on December 10, 2015.


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