Engineering to keep America safe

By Morgan Stashick, College of Engineering



Sitting in a classroom in battle dress uniform, Air Force veterans blend easily with one another as they listen to instructors and take notes on laptop computers. The airmen's personal and medical needs are not identical, though their uniforms seem to match. What makes them similar is their desire for new skills and professional opportunities, and their devotion to serving the United States of America.

Eric Imsand and Drew Hamilton, faculty members in Auburn University's Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering, have been commuting to military bases like this one across the country, instructing week-long digital forensics classes to wounded warriors who are looking to transition into new careers. This summer, they traveled to Eglin Air Force Base in Niceville, Fla., to instruct their sixteenth course since 2009. Their workforce training initiative is a collaborative project with Mississippi State University and Tuskegee University and is funded by the National Science Foundation.

"These are people who are preparing for a different life while facing medical uncertainty, numerous doctors' appointments and job uncertainty," says Hamilton. "They've been away from their family for a while and have just come back and have to find a job, in a job market that isn't good. That is why we do this."

Hamilton explains that military instruction is unlike a university education because soldiers are generally exposed to specific hands-on training. The goal of the course is to provide these servicemen with skills in digital forensics in a way that is familiar and comfortable, rather than traditional lecture methods. Class participants learn how to trace email and Internet activities, recover deleted files from hard-drives and find hidden data on digital devices, among other exercises.

"The reason digital forensics was chosen for the curriculum is multifold," says Imsand. "Our country has a real shortage of people who can do this type of work, and most law enforcement agencies at the state and local level are faced with the new challenge of not having enough people to do it. Now, we have all these wounded warriors who fully intend to serve their country – who are already motivated to do so – and who are making career transitions. We are taking this asset and applying it to this challenge."

Staff Sergeant Dave Flowers sits in Imsand and Hamilton's class, not appearing any different than the rest. It is not easy to see that he has a prosthetic leg under his camouflage pants. Flowers tells a story of bravery, selflessness and recovery in a war that he fought – and won – in 2009, that eventually brought him to Eglin and led him to take the digital forensics course.

Flowers' story begins in Afghanistan, where he was part of a team tasked to dispose of a munitions dump. After he stepped on a landmine, he looked down to find that his right leg was gone and his left was badly shattered.

"What I remember most is one of my team members sprinting over to me…he had no regard for his personal safety," says Flowers.

After a year and a half of surgeries and rehabilitation, he was stationed at Eglin to teach at the explosive ordnance disposal school.

"My recovery care coordinator advised me to take this class in case I want to get out of the military," says Flowers. "I don't want to get out – even though I'm wounded – but we thought it would be a good idea for me to have more knowledge on the subject and be able to move into a civilian capacity if need be."

Flowers admits that he was "computer illiterate" when he began the digital forensics course, but says by the end of the week he was conducting digital forensic simulations that are applicable to his military job.

"We do weapons cache raids where we might find computers and cellphones," says Flowers. "If I expand upon information I learned in this class, I could direct people in the field on how to extract information from those devices back on base."

Senior Airman Sydney Sullivan, also stationed at Eglin, says he can easily apply what he learned in Imsand and Hamilton's digital forensics course to his military position in mortuary affairs.

"There might be evidence, like a cellphone that a soldier was carrying," says Sullivan. "Maybe I can salvage that technology and information with the skills I learned in this course."

Sullivan will deploy in January.

In July, Auburn was awarded a grant from the National Security Agency's National Information Assurance Education and Training Program to continue bringing forensics training to wounded soldiers. This project will also support outreach activities at minority institutions, including North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and Western New Mexico University.

"I always say to my colleagues that if we can help a wounded warrior who has put it all on the line to help our country, it's been a good day," says Hamilton. "It would be wrong to say we do these classes just to teach wounded warriors. They end up teaching us as well."

Last Updated: Sept. 15, 2011

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