An engineer's journey to Afghanistan
April 4, 2013
- Engineers and technicians deploy with Soldiers to find a rapid solution to problems that Soldiers bring to them.
- To Stephen McFarlane, a mechanical engineer from Picatinny Arsenal, a major allure of such a team was meeting the immediate needs of the Soldiers.
- During his deployment in Afghanistan, McFarlane interacted with Soldiers as his "customers" who relayed their needs.
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PICATINNY ARSENAL, N.J. (April 4, 2013) -- Much like Soldiers who find ways to make things happen under battlefield conditions, a team of engineers and technicians deployed with Soldiers apply their skills and knowledge to find a rapid solution to problems that Soldiers bring to them.
To Stephen McFarlane, a mechanical engineer from Picatinny Arsenal, a major allure of such a team was meeting the immediate needs of the Soldiers without involving the "higher up guys," who typically make the decisions that keep the high-quantity, big-ticket hardware moving through the acquisition process.
But instead of having the items pass muster with the Army Test and Evaluation Command, field commanders had the latitude to decide whether small quantities of items born from a need to solve a field problem would become part of the unit's equipment.
During his deployment in Afghanistan, McFarlane interacted with Soldiers as his "customers" who relayed their needs. As he got to know them better, he increasingly appreciated their insights and importance.
"These were guys who are actually going out on missions and getting shot at. They were the reason we were able to do our mission and do it safely," said McFarlane, who has worked for the Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center at Picatinny for more than six years.
In Afghanistan, McFarlane was teamed with two other engineers, three technicians and a power and energy specialist. They were the talent manning the U.S. Army Research Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM) Field Assistance in Science and Technology Center, or RFAST-C.
"RDECOM had purchased an assortment of equipment that allows for rapid prototyping of equipment that meets Soldiers needs," explained McFarlane. The RFAST-C is equipped with a mill, lathe, press-brake, sheer and a precision metal-cutting tool called a water jet.
RDECOM kept the RFAST-C stocked with talent by recruiting volunteers from its centers, where thousands of military engineers and technicians are employed. Responding to announcements of open positions, these volunteers rotate in-and-out constantly, usually serving for six-months before returning to their home centers.
To generate Soldier customers, a separate RFAST-C advocate circulated from one forward operating base to another in the theater of operation, giving briefings on the capabilities available through the RFAST-C.
The majority of RFAST-C customers are junior enlisted Soldiers and noncommissioned officers.
"The Soldiers were dedicated and disciplined," McFarlane noted. "A lot of them had wisdom and life skills beyond their years. That's why they received and deserved the utmost respect from me and my division."
Primarily through word-of-mouth, Soldiers were drawn to the RFAST-C in a bid to exploit its tools and talent, McFarlane explained. "They come in with very insightful requests that we don't usually hear of when we're working in the acquisition community."
CAREER OPTIONS AFTER COLLEGE
McFarlane's eventual journey to Afghanistan came after having to make a tough career decision as he completed college, then later having to decide if a tour in Afghanistan was the right choice.
Last April McFarlane received an e-mail that announced an opening in Afghanistan for an engineer skilled in computer-aided design. He qualified for the position but needed to ask around before officially tossing his hat into the ring.
He conferred with his wife first, who was hesitant, said McFarlane. Even so, she told him that with an 18-month-old daughter, the time was as good as it would get.
"She wouldn't remember me," he said, something that would make his transition back home to the states less stressful if his daughter was too young to remember him leaving.
An Army major and close friend told him that deploying in the service of his country was "honorable and noble," said McFarlane. Those words swayed him.
BUILDING HARDWARE AND A REPUTATION
McFarlane's primary duty was to turn the ideas and requests made by the troops into workable hardware designs to help meet the pressing needs of Soldiers or to make their jobs easier.
Upon his arrival at work at 8 a.m., "nine-times-out-of-ten" he would find a new requirement or project waiting for him. McFarlane would typically work 12-hour days from a shipping-container office. Some days he would design and fabricate new items the same day he received them.
"Our small shop is what the Soldiers see as (the identify of) RDECOM. When they were made aware of the shop and its capabilities, it changed their perspectives about RDECOM," said McFarlane.
The combination of a small staff and steady demand for material solutions meant that McFarlane had to expand his skills to meet the Soldiers' needs.
Within a month of his arrival, McFarlane had learned to operate the water jet, press-brake and shear by working with the technicians and reading manuals. The need to equip a unit before it rolled out on its next mission demanded that the RFAST-C members operate as a team, putting aside strictly defined work responsibilities.
"We didn't have the luxury of just sitting back and doing CAD (computer aided design) work," said McFarlane. "We had to share the work load and get involved in fabrication."
Examples of field-expedient engineering solutions include:
• A Soldier wanted a mount for his ammunition canister inside his turret next to the left window, where the ammo would feed directly into the machine gun. Other Soldiers were mounting ammo cans outside the turret with bungee cords. McFarlane made two mounts and wound up making eight more after other Soldiers in the unit found out about it.
• Local kids were throwing rocks at the thermal imaging lens of the Common Remotely Operated Weapons Station, which could break the $70,000 devices and render the high-tech thermal camera unusable. He designed a cover to protect the lens, thus allowing the camera to "see."
• Mineroller-controller screens were extremely bright and interfered with night optic devices. McFarlane designed a custom-fit, steel-protective cover with an integrated film insert to reduce the brightness of the screens.
• Soldiers wanted to use the 500-round ammunition pack known as the Ironman for their MK-48. McFarlane worked with 2-D drawings to design an adapter for the feed chute, a project he completed with personnel from the Prototype Integration Facility at Picatinny Arsenal.
• The Rapid Equipping Force had made 2-D drawings of a litter bracket that would ease the loading and unloading of the wounded inside of Stryker vehicles. But they lacked a way to manufacture the item. With the RFAST-C's help, 30 were produced and fitted to Strykers.
Approval to have the imaginative items fitted to vehicles occurred without the delays normally associated with providing items directly from the United States. "The commanders in the field had the final say," said McFarlane.
Working with military vehicles was a fitting experience for McFarlane, who was first attracted to engineering because of an interest in automobiles.
Furthermore, he said he liked the association with the military. His father was a U.S. Navy Sailor, and he understood the sacrifices military personnel and their families make during their service.
That understanding would grow in Afghanistan.
LIFE PATH, CAREER CHOICE
His previous life experience that most resembled a combat zone was more than six years ago, when he was dealing with his Patriot League rivals as a defensive end on the Lafayette College football team in Easton, Pa.
In other words, he had no comparable experience.
To Robert Pellen, who recruited McFarlane to work at Picatinny Arsenal, the football experience bode well for the prospect that the student-athlete would one day provide valuabe skills to the Army.
"That's a good department," said Pellen of the engineering department at Lafayette College. "If they come out of that they're good for us."
Pellen explained that the course load at the college was known to be strenuous enough without extracurricular activities. "If he could handle the athletic work and the course load, it tells us he can handle a lot."
McFarlane had signed up for a meeting on the Lafayette campus to speak with Pellen. He would later tour several labs at Picatinny and then assess his future. He had a choice to make.
On one hand, McFarlane had received an offer to work for a telecommunications giant that would have provided a nice office, routine hours and $15,000 more per year than what was initially being offered by Picatinny.
SHIPPING CONTAINER OFFICE AND BRUTAL HEAT
One the other hand, he could work on the Army base. If he volunteered for a deployment, he might end up working 12-plus hour days in a place under constant threat of attack where temperatures varied from the teens to 100-plus.
His office, a shipping container, might be furnished with a solitary wooden desk. The deployment would also provide a 10 p.m. curfew accompanied by mandatory lights out, which would mean navigating to showers and other destinations with a flashlight.
Moreover, he might be able to speak with his wife and baby daughter via FaceTime, a service for video calls.
And on most days he might hear the "controlled dets." Frequently at night, McFarlane explained, Soldiers would roll out on combat missions to destinations not far from Baghram Air Base. They would return in the morning with a load of munitions they had captured from enemy fighters.
Later that day, he would hear controlled detonations echo throughout the base, signaling the end for the lethality those munitions once held.
They were "munitions that were earmarked for us," added McFarlane.
By choosing the Army route, he got to engineer for the folks who have to go out and do what needs to be done to accomplish their mission.
"It's just what I wanted to do."