The U.S. Army Research Laboratory periodically asks civilians to volunteer to support overseas missions for a period of up to six months.
Dr. Richard Tober, a scientist with ARL’s Sensors and Electron Devices Directorate, is one of those rare people in the laboratory who stepped out of his comfort zone for not one theater assignment – but two.
Tober recently returned from a six-month deployment in Afghanistan. He and had previously deployed to Iraq for a three-month period back in 2007.
When asked why he requested the opportunity to serve overseas, Tober said he grew up as an Air Force brat and in his younger years had tried on several occasions to join the military. However, Tober was unable to pass the medical screening due to several sporting injuries during his high school and college days.
“I still had the motivation for patriotism even though I was unable to serve in the military,” said Tober. “To this day, I feel so incredibly lucky to pursue this job and to do research for the military.
None of this would have been possible without the support of Tober’s family. “My wife and children supported my decision to go deploy,” said Tober. “My wife understood my motivation and desires. My kids were a little freaked out, but were supportive of me.”
Tober shared a story from his first deployment.
“My family drove me to the airport and then as I left them and starting walked down the corridor, I started to feel separation anxiety. Then, once I got on the plane, they had me listed as a GS-4 instead of a DB-4 (which is equivalent to a GS-15). Nobody knew what a DB-4 was! What this meant is that instead of sitting in business class, I got to sit in the back of the plane with the enlisted personnel. I definitely enjoyed the conversations with them,” said Tober.
When Tober got to his living quarters, he stayed in the barracks with the younger soldiers.
“I wanted to experience as much as I could what it would be like to be a soldier in the military,” explained Tober.
During deployment, Tober worked on prototype fabrication of electronic equipment to help soldiers better perform their jobs. He talked with the units to see what they needed – from electronics to helping things become more comfortable for them.
“For me, it was rewarding to help the soldiers’ experiences easier, more efficient and more comfortable,” said Tober as he shared a story about working on a striker vehicle where the team installed foam padding on the hard steel seats. He said a young soldier smiled and gave him the thumbs-up for providing him a bit of comfort.
Tober used his scientific expertise to support the military members by developing a filtering device to place in front of a spot light so that white light wouldn’t interfere with what the military members were looking for.
The SEDD division chief applied $50,000 of funding for Tober to work with a contractor to make the device, and it was sent to a major within ARL who was deployed and he performed a few experiments in theater.
“The major wrote back with comments saying the device was a good idea, but not quite good enough,” said Tober who said that he knew how to make it better.
Tober later called the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, which provided additional funding to perfect the opto-electronic device.
“One of the most significant advantages of scientists deploying is that they can have on-on-one contact with not only war fighters, but also those responsible for acquisition programs in theater,” said Tober. “As it happened, RFAST-C (U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command Field Assistance in Science and Technology Center) shared facilities with a shop responsible for repairing high profile ISR assets.”
Tober explains a little background information.
“So one day the lead engineer described a recurring problem to me and a few concepts his team had considered to mitigate the problem. The ideas were conceptually straight-forward but there were actually several basic physical reasons that their ideas would not work (that is, I understood because of my background—Ph.D. in Physics),” said Tober. “However, I continued thinking about the problem as I inventoried material within the RFAST-C PIF (prototype integration facility). By the end of the day, I fabricated a protective device that could be quickly tested on the ISR equipment that existed within the PIF.”
Tober was happy with the device.
“The device worked remarkably well (nothing is perfect) and so I consulted one of our mechanical engineers (Stephen McFarlane) regarding potential implementations of the protective device. These discussions resulted in a few prototype devices that were provided to the ISR representative (i.e., the engineer) the next day. They were subsequently distributed to various combat units for assessments and opinions,” said Tober.
The protective devices proved to be useful. Tober said RFAST-C then received requests for a relatively large number of additional parts for distribution to other units.
“Mr. McFarlane and I discussed multiple protective cover implementation designs, the final device was extremely affective and inexpensive to fabricate (i.e., ~$20 per unit), but yet protects an $80,000 piece of equipment,” said Tober. “The engineer representing the ISR equipment told us that, before the existence of the protective cover, that he army lost about six assets per month, totally about $480,000 savings per month.”
Tober said that he found his deployments to be incredibly rewarding. When asked what advice he would give to others contemplating deployment, he said, “If you want to help – you will help. Are you going to change the world? Probably not, but you are going to change the lives of at least one or two people.”
Another one of the legacy’s Tober left behind was his love of music. He had his wife send him a guitar during his first deployment and he left it with a soldier who also loved music. When the soldier asked how much he wanted for it, Tober told him it was free and to pay it forward by leaving it for someone else when he left. Tober did the same thing when he left Afghanistan.
Tober’s dedication doesn’t go unnoticed back at his laboratory in Adelphi.
“Rich has a big heart and is all about supporting the Warfighter,” said Michael D’Onofrio, ARL, SEDD’s Signal and Image Processing Division. “I had the opportunity to sit down with him a few weeks ago to hear about his experiences. Although most of what he did may not seem so glamorous or scientific to most, I understand that Rich was highly regarded in theater and the contributions that his team made were very much appreciated by the war fighter.”