Goal Of Study To Identify Those Who Are Able To Detect IEDs

April 8, 2009

IEDs or Improvised Explosive Devices are one of the biggest dangers that our Soldiers are facing in the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq. IEDs are something that injure or kill more Soldiers in these wars. Because of this, the Joint Improvised Explosive Devise Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) was created. Now the JIEDDO is studying why some Soldiers are better able to identify and recognize an IED that has been implanted on a route they are traveling, than other Soldiers are. What special sense or inate ability do these Soldiers possess, that others don’t? Is it something that can be taught to other Soldiers? Because of these questions, the JIEDDO, for the past 18 months has been conducting research into why this is, to identify what particular skills, abilities and characteristics possess that others do not.

The director of the study, Jennifer Murphy, PhD said that the leadership of JIEDDO had been hearing stories coming from the front lines, that some Soldiers were able to identify IEDs and thus help others in their convoys avoid these deadly traps. The JIEDDO and the Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences joined forces to research and study this phenomenon.

“Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way we could identify people who have this skill before they deploy, because it would save so many lives,” she said. “Because right now the way it is, we have to wait for the tour to unfold to see who is good and who’s not.”1

According to Murphy, as her team heard more and more of these stories about certain Soldiers who just seem to be able to ’sense’ that an IED had been implaced, the more they began to question the reasons why those Soldiers were so good at finding IEDs. If the Army were able to identify those particular Soldiers prior to a deployment, they could then strategically place them in various locations throughout convoys. The end result could be many lives saved. According to statistics, most IED casualties occur either at the beginning or at the end of a Soldier’s tour in combat. Those occurring at the beginning, because Soldier’s aren’t yet familiar with their surroundings and those occurring at the end, because Soldiers begin focusing on returning home.

“If you talk to a Soldier about what he thinks makes him good, he’ll say, ‘I’ve got a spidey sense, a sixth sense and I can just feel something is wrong. I don’t know ath it is, but something is out of place, not quite right,” she said. “Obviously we can’t measure ’spidey sense’ but I can tell you that we can determine to a large degree how eyes and certain cognitive functions work together.”2

As more and more of these reports come in from the front lines, the research team began studying certain human factors that might impact why some Soldiers are more able to detect IEDs than others. Things such as the way the light enters the eyes, to the way the information is passed along to the brain, as well as personality factors were measured. This was done through several different tests as well as finding out different experiences that each Soldier experienced in the field or perhaps had earlier in their life. Questions were asked of the Soldiers, like, were they avid hunters and fisherman, was the terrain they were traveling in familiar to them? So many factors can come into play and the JIEDDO team felt it was important to study how these factors interrelate to make someone good at detecting IEDs.

After identifying certain core components, the researchers then broken them down into basic processes and determined ways in which they could measure them. To date, 800 service members from all branches of the military have been accessed, given a battery of 15-16 tests. The data was then analyzed and researchers were able to filter out the most important predictors of persons who could do well at finding IEDs.

“We’re not just looking for an ability in someone, we’re looking for differences between people, because that’s how we identify the ones who are going to be best at this task,” said Murphy. “Most Soldiers have vision that has been corrected, but there are some people who can see above and beyond that. I’m not going to know what above and beyond is, unless I know how everyone else performs.”3

Besides visual acuity, researchers are also looking at other traits which seem inherent in Soldiers who are good at detecting IEDs. Murphy said those are things such as certain cognitive capacity characteristics, working memory spatial representations, Soldiers keep in their brains. While these are traits that can be measured, Murphy stressed that these traits can’t be taught.

“Some of the things we’re looking at are skills that actually can be trained,” Murphy said. “Things like the ability to pay attention for a long period of time. We can train vigilance, that’s something research has shown we can actually do to improve performance.”4

Ms. Murphy was able to identify that certain Soldiers who are sensitive to various subltities are often the same Soldiers who are making the treks down the same route every day and are able to see and sense that something is wrong, or that something is missing or there that wasn’t before. Often, these are the same Soldiers who are able to detect IEDs.

“These are people who notice extraordinary subtle changes in the environment,” Murphy explained. “They can recognize the treat marks of their vehicles and they can see where another vehicle has gone over and down the road that’s not theirs. The one thing that you’ll find is that the good route-clearance guys understand this and they’ll set themselves up so they can notice changes,” she said. “In their minds, they’ll proactively clear the area. It’s called desanitization, which is where they are able to get rid of all the trash, all the garbage, all the foliage, virtually everything along the side of the road and in the process they minimize IED hiding places. They’re able to segregate items from the background.”5

I’m looking forward to hearing and reading more about this research and their findings and if the team is able to identify ways in which these skills can be taught to other Soldiers. In my opinion, if being able to do so can save the lives of our Troops, then it’s worth whatever cost goes along with it. I’m all for anything that is able to protect the safety and wellbeing of our Troops.

  1. http://www.army.mil/-news/2009/04/03/19247-study-aims-to-identify-ied-detection-experts/ []
  2. http://www.army.mil/-news/2009/04/03/19247-study-aims-to-identify-ied-detection-experts/ []
  3. http://www.army.mil/-news/2009/04/03/19247-study-aims-to-identify-ied-detection-experts/ []
  4. http://www.army.mil/-news/2009/04/03/19247-study-aims-to-identify-ied-detection-experts/ []
  5. http://www.army.mil/-news/2009/04/03/19247-study-aims-to-identify-ied-detection-experts/ []


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