RALEIGH — On the morning of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, men and women all over the country decided to join the military. What Michael Steer decided that day probably saved the lives of some of them.
Steer, an N.C. State professor of electrical and computer engineering, and a naturalized citizen from Australia, was meeting with Army researchers when the attack came. He says he immediately knew that he wanted to fight terrorism by drawing on his years of research on the interactions between energy fields and electronic devices.
He worked every day, including weekends and holidays, from 2002 through 2005 on technology that saved the lives of hundreds of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, the commanding general of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, said Thursday.
Devices based on his work prevent the enemy from triggering roadside bombs with wireless devices such as cell phones. Improvised bombs have been the largest killer of U.S. troops in Iraq and now Afghanistan, causing more than 60 percent of fatalities there.
"This is a game-changer in modern warfare," said Maj. Gen. Nick Justice, who came from Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland to give Steer a special civilian award - the U.S. Army Commander's Award for Public Service - at a ceremony Thursday on NCSU's Centennial Campus.
The way that Steer's work is used is classified, Justice said. In fact, it's so sensitive he declined to say when it was deployed in the two war zones.
It started, though, when Steer beamed electromagnetic energy at electronic communications devices and measured the response. The measurements allowed him to learn about the way the devices were constructed.
In a speech during the ceremony, Steer, 54, said the work became a Manhattan Project-like effort that, along with his teaching and other faculty duties, devoured all his days for nearly three years, including Christmases.
In a way, Steer enlisted his wife and three children in the project.
"I think it was pretty tough on them," he said in an interview. "I'd talk to them about how this was really important, but of course I couldn't tell them exactly what I was doing."
His wife, Mary, stopped working full-time so that Steer could bear down. The rare breaks in those 80- and 90-hour workweeks included periodic games of tennis, a game everyone in the family plays.
Pressure was on
Aaron Walker, then one of Steer's doctoral students and a member of the research team, said the pressure was extraordinary because they could see on television every day what the bombs were doing to U.S. troops. They knew that any day off likely meant more deaths.
"Every bombing it was, like, how can we work harder and faster," Walker said. "The tempo was pretty intense."
The work provided Army research funding for 20 faculty members, students and postdoctoral researchers. A powerful motivator came, Walker said, when word filtered back that some of the products developed with their research were starting to save lives.
Justice said it did more.
"It also changed the way the enemy behaves," he said. "We had lost the capability to operate in that environment, and this put us back on the battlefield and gave us the ability to go out there knowing we can protect the young soldiers' lives and engage the enemy and not have to hide behind the castle walls."
An adaptable enemy
Steer's work didn't mean the end of improvised bombs. In 2009, there were 7,228 IED attacks in Afghanistan, a 120 percent increase over 2008; of 448 non-Afghan troops killed in action last year, 280 were killed by IEDs.
But it robbed the enemy of one of its best means of triggering bombs. Alternatives such as detonators connected by wires, or those triggered simply by the pressure of a vehicle or person passing over them, have weaknesses that troops can exploit. But all troops know that just when there seems to be a solution for one kind of bomb, the enemy changes things to adapt.
"The insurgents are very versatile," Steer said. "Once you've got one thing tackled, another shoots up. It kind of goes on and on, but eventually you'll have solutions for all of these things."
Steer said that he had eased his pace since 2005 and turned back to broader research.
Walker said he was skeptical of Steer's claim.
"Michael's pretty tireless," he said. "I wouldn't say there has been much of a letup."
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