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Battlefield Forensics: Training helps service members process crime scenes, combat terrorism
Tech. Sgt. Mary Johanson, a broadcast journalist with the 4th Combat Camera Squadron, takes a buccal swab from role player Tech. Sgt. Erica Knight, a photojournalist with the 4th CTCS, during battlefield forensics training at March Air Reserve Base, Calif. Seven Six3 Systems instructors who are part of a mobile training team came to teach 38 Airmen, two Sailors, and a Marine to collect and process biometric evidence. Only 2 percent of the entire U.S. military has ever received this one-of-a-kind training. (Staff Sgt. Carolyn Herrick)
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Battlefield Forensics: Training helps service members process crime scenes, combat terrorism

Posted 9/25/2013   Updated 9/25/2013 Email story   Print story


by Tech. Sgt. Christine Jones
4th Combat Camera Squadron, March Air Reserve Base, Calif.

9/25/2013 - Citizen Airman/Oct. 2013 -- Blood spatters cover the walls, and bloody hand prints can be seen on the door. The room is a gruesome aftermath of a horrific crime. Someone must collect evidence to determine what happened and to bring the person or persons responsible to justice.

Dealing with these and similar kinds of scenes, as well as discovering improvised explosive device labs, has become all too familiar to military members serving on the frontlines in Afghanistan, and identifying those responsible is a top priority.

To help equip service members to fulfill this important role, the Air Force Reserve's 4th Combat Camera Squadron at March Air Reserve Base, Calif., served as host for a mobile training team consisting of seven instructors that taught 38 Airmen, two Sailors and a Marine how to collect and process biometric evidence July 22-26.

Battlefield forensics is a material collection process designed specifically for the troops in the field who are fighting terrorism on the front lines. Students learn basic skills for lifting latent fingerprints and collecting DNA, as well as special photography techniques and proper documentation practices.

Students come from a broad range of backgrounds, including combat camera personnel, mechanics, law enforcement professionals, cooks, riflemen, route clearance members and explosive ordnance disposal technicians.

"The nature of the course is the integration of forensics and biometric skill sets for students of different military occupational specialties," said Mark Fields, forensic technician and senior instructor. This course turns conventional service members into crime scene investigators for the military.

One Airman from the 4th CTCS who previously had been through the course unexpectedly found himself in a situation where using his newly acquired skills was necessary.

"I took battlefield forensics in 2010 thinking I would never use the skills," said Staff Sgt. Jonathan Garcia, a broadcast journalist. "In 2012, when I deployed to the Horn of Africa, I was tasked to assist an accident investigation board. The skills I learned from battlefield forensics helped me be more comfortable when I was thrust into the role. Materials like the collection bags and scales from the forensics kit I brought proved to be an invaluable asset to the board as we documented the site."

Service members who attended the training in July agreed that learning battlefield forensics skills will be a helpful and valuable tool to have overseas.

"Now I have another area of expertise," said Marine Corps Sgt. Jose Castellon, a Los Angeles native and photographer at Headquarters and Service Battalion, Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego.

"It's teaching me a lot more of the investigative side of things, whereas with combat camera we are doing more documentation of personnel and exercises -- this is more equipment and getting information from material versus people," said Castellon, a 10-year military veteran who has deployed to Iraq, Thailand, Mongolia, Australia and the Philippines. "It's a very, very good training exercise. I'm having a blast."

Marvin Whitfield, forensics expert and team leader for the Six3 Systems Battlefield Forensics Mobile Training Course, said the training makes military members more valuable assets while downrange.

"Personnel are on target doing their primary function and they come across an improvised explosive device. That individual can switch hats and effectively accomplish site biometrics and forensics exploitation," he said.

Six3 Systems instructors have been teaching the course for the past five years. Combined, members of the training cadre have more than 200 years of experience. Many of the instructors come from law enforcement and forensics backgrounds, in addition to having graduate degrees, and they understand the importance of continuing training.

This training was required to help service members identify insurgents who are creating problems in a theater of operations. Whether stateside or deployed overseas, service members can use the battlefield forensics training to process -- either individually or as a team -- quality site exploitation evidence, forensics and biometrics material from any scene they come across, Fields said.

"I'm really learning a lot," said Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonah Stepanik, a Riverside, Calif., native and mass communications specialist at Fleet Combat Camera Pacific, Coronado, Calif., who has deployed to the Philippines in his two years in the Navy.

"Battlefield forensics has taught me to be more analytical (when) I approach sites or scenes. It seems like I'm moving more efficiently and saving time, even though I'm more analytical and have the 'forensic eye,' as they call it. I'm looking for things you wouldn't normally look for and seeing things you wouldn't normally see. It's a great opportunity to get training we can't get elsewhere."

Fields said another reason this training is so necessary is U.S. service members are not fighting a uniformed army.

"We are fighting people who blend easily into their environment: local nationals," he said. "What we needed was a way to help identify those people -- with fingerprints, DNA and photographs -- so that we can identify people who are causing issues, like bomb makers, bomb placers and whoever is helping buy the material to make devices. They needed a way to not only identify them but use the information gathered for criminal prosecution."

By doing so, forensics technicians can take away the anonymity of not only insurgents in the battle space but also activists who are playing a secondary role in generating terrorist support and activity, Fields said.

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