DARIEN, Ill. (July 6, 2015) -- He's a self-proclaimed "map geek," and he's the first Soldier to join the newest geospatial cell at an engineer command in Illinois. And right now, he wants to find more Soldiers like him to join the team.
The geospatial cell at the 416th Theater Engineer Command, or TEC, is brand new. It was established this year as part of a broader redesign plan for the command's headquarters. This redesign is part of a validation process the TEC is going through.
Master Sgt. Steve Lotz began his Army career 27 years ago as a field artilleryman, and yet, he fits right into the geospatial realm the TEC needs.
"I started out with my father. My father was a land surveyor, and he immigrated here in the fifties from Germany ... and did that his entire life," said Lotz, who speaks some German himself and lives in Arlington Heights, Illinois. "So when I was a boy, I would actually go out on jobs with him and help him out with elevations and measuring."
Ever as a kid, Lotz would collect highway maps given away for free at gas stations, and he inherited beautiful mountain-climbing maps from his father, made in the 1930s, which were all hand drawn and incredibly detailed.
"I was always fascinated by that. Looking at a map and knowing [where to go] ... When I was younger, I went to Europe. I could just look at a map and put it down, and I'd know where I'm going. I always wanted to know where I was going," said Lotz, who has a geography degree from Northeastern University in Chicago and is working on a master's degree in geographic information systems from Penn State Online.
Yet, geospatial engineering today is an art and science that goes beyond two-dimensional maps. It's more than just about physical terrain, land elevation or forest features. It takes into account every aspect of data that impacts a piece of land, no matter how big or small: population, culture, climate, flooding patterns, enemy presence, friendly force locations, safest routes for travel and so much more.
"Now, we're looking at a 3-D realm ... on a screen. As geospatial analysts, we're giving that commander a better view of his common operating picture of what he wants to see," he said.
The data for these geospatial maps are gathered from a variety of sources. Sources range from open networks, military human intelligence, Department of Defense systems and other security agencies.
This not only helps the military fight the enemy, but it helps them decide where to set up bases and build infrastructure in the first place. It also comes in hand during peacekeeping operations or disaster relief missions. Under any one of those scenarios, that's when the Theater Engineer Command comes into place.
The two other main functions of an engineer command are "assured mobility" [allowing movement to friendly forces while negating it to their enemies] and "general engineering" [the construction of everything in an operational theater]. Geospatial engineering serves both of those functions. It provides the intelligence needed to transform the military decision making process into action.
"For us in the TEC, terrain analysis would be huge ... You have to remember that the earth changes. Terrain changes. To get that data up to date and get that analysis is very helpful to any commander, to any unit," Lotz said.
Even though the 416th TEC is part of the U.S. Army Reserve, it's designed to operate as a Joint Task Force Headquarters, which allows it to command and control engineer assets and other services from every branch of the military in case of a deployment or mobilization.
"We are going to have the first eyes on everything. We are going to see it ahead of time what Soldiers are going to have to face before they head in there. Nobody likes the unknown," Lotz said.
For such a big task, the geospatial cell is relatively small. Once fully up and running, it will consist of just seven Soldiers. Five of those slots are reserved for senior noncommissioned officers, or NCOs, and the other two are for warrant officers, but commissioned officers are also being considered for the job.
Lotz shared some insight on who might best fill those roles.
"I'd look for a person, who has a passion for it, that's like me, a map geek growing up, and expresses some kind of interest and has a passion for it," he said.
Other helpful tangibles are good attention to detail, a background in geography, mathematics, computer knowledge and a good understanding of the military decision-making process. The job revolves around helping commanders make informed decisions.
The school required to qualify as a military geospatial engineer (12Y) is approximately 20-weeks long, taught on Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Most of that training takes place in the classroom, where Soldiers learn basic knowledge on geographic information systems, geographic analysis and imagery interpretation.
Even though Lotz is fully qualified because of his civilian education, he'll be going to the school soon to receive the military occupational specialty.
"I've seen it in the military how it's grown over the years," he said. "When I started, it was throwing a map on the wall and overlays, the acetate, and putting post-it notes pictures all over that map ... To see it escalate to see where it is today, and the type of information you can grab and find out there, it's pretty amazing."
Already, one officer and another NCO are planning on joining the team. With a few more passionate, map-savvy Soldiers in place, the geospatial cell will be ready to help the TEC map out its own path to joint task force validation.