Lowering the Boom: An Interview with Chris Hartman

IED Defeat: Forensic science alumnus works to stop the biggest killer of American soldiers

Click to see photos

Christopher Hartman (’08 MFS) is an explosive chemical technician stationed in Bagram, Afghanistan. He analyzes explosives to help the military to better understand and attack Improvised Explosive Device or IED networks.

He spoke with Archways about his experience supporting U.S. war-fighters in Afghanistan.

You’re not in the military yourself, yet you’re serving in Afghanistan. Talk about your work and how it fits with the war effort there.

My employer is Ideal Innovations, Inc. (I3), which is based out of Arlington, Va. I3 is a consulting firm that provides the military and private industries with personnel experienced in areas such as biometrics, forensics, counter-IED, intelligence, engineering and software development.

Basically, I’m a chemist for the group known as the Combined Explosive Exploitation Cell or CEXC. (And, yes, it’s pronounced “sexy”.) It’s my job to perform all of the chemical analysis on bulk HME (homemade explosive) or any other explosive submitted. CEXC handles all IED-related incidences.

CEXC’s purpose is to fully exploit an IED to get as much information out of it as possible. As a chemist, I exploit the chemical composition of the IED’s HME. Basically, I figure out what’s in it.

We compare that to known standards to identify what products the bomb maker is using. This provides useful intelligence that can be used to track the production of HME, track the movement of a particular batch of HME, determine how it was prepared and possibly locate the sources of the materials.

Our results move to intelligence analysts who then supply the war-fighter with information to give them a better understanding of what’s being used. Chemical analysis, biometrics (fingerprints and DNA), electronics and engineering and intelligence all come together from CEXC and goes right back out to the war-fighter.

What’s a typical day at work?

My day usually starts out by receiving a sample from triage. They do the initial examination of the IED and make sure that it’s safe. We get a small sample of the HME or post-blast evidence to perform the chemical analysis. We use various instrumentation such as Raman spectroscopy, fourier transform infrared spectroscopy, X-ray and gas chromatography/mass spectrometry.

Once we review our results, I write a report on our findings and any additional information that may be of use. I’ll note if this is a new HME we’re seeing, if it appears related to other cases or is in any way out of the ordinary.

Sometimes a day isn’t so typical. I’ve been woken up in the middle of the night by the FBI saying they have an EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) guy in the field who needs chemical-related information ASAP. The rest of the story you don’t have the clearance for. (I’ve always wanted to say that.)

You have to be ready 24-7 over here.

Because of my previous experience as a CSI with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, I’m also able to help in the biometrics section and photography section. For about a month, they were short-staffed and needed an experienced photographer, so I happily volunteered. I also spent some time performing latent print processing of IED components for CEXC.

How does this information help catch bad guys?

Chemical analysis can be very useful in determining the sources of an IED’s raw materials. When you know that, you can monitor or even stop the movement of that material. It’s similar to how the U.S. is handling methamphetamine production by monitoring and restricting access to the raw materials such as pseudoephedrine.

Also, if we can provide the war-fighter with better information on what’s being used in an HME, they can better identify the components out in the field and detain the individuals who possess them.

What have you learned by working in a warzone that maybe you hadn’t appreciated as a forensic scientist in Nebraska?

Be safe! If you don’t know what you are working with, take every safety precaution you can.

I almost lost my right hand in May when an explosive sample detonated while I was holding it. Fortunately, it was a small sample and I only got superficial wounds and some shrapnel embedded in my hand. It made a beautiful blood spatter pattern on the ceiling and walls. I suppose it’s something only a forensic scientist could appreciate.

How has your experience at NWU prepared you for the work you’re doing now?

I wouldn’t be where I am today without NWU. Being a part of the Forensic Science Program gave me the opportunity to become a CSI, which in turn gave me the opportunity to join the CEXC lab.

My forensic science education provided me with useful knowledge and experiences that have set me apart from others in the field. It’s also given me some very important contacts. And a lot of times in this line of work, it’s who you know that can provide you with some great opportunities.

For me, I have to thank (Associate Professor of Forensic Science) Melissa Connor. The sheriff’s office was looking for a chemist and she recommended me. I owe her a lot. I wouldn’t be where I am without her and a without a lot of hard work while in the program at NWU. I’m probably one of the more versatile and experienced forensic scientists working over here right now, and a lot of that is because of NWU.