AFRL engineer finds a way to stop IEDs

Argen Duncan
KAFB Nucleus editor

MAX POWER military team members, from left, Air Force Capt. Mike Gifford, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Mike Anderson, Army Sgt. 1st Class Guill Marez and Air Force Maj. Jeff Heggemeier, an Air Force Research Laboratory researcher when not serving in the Reserves or National Guard, pose during their 2012 deployment to Afghanistan.

MAX POWER military team members, from left, Air Force Capt. Mike Gifford, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Mike Anderson, Army Sgt. 1st Class Guill Marez and Air Force Maj. Jeff Heggemeier, an Air Force Research Laboratory researcher when not serving in the Reserves or National Guard, pose during their 2012 deployment to Afghanistan.

To inspire current and future Air Force Research Laboratory scientists and engineers, a Kirtland Air Force Base researcher recently told his story of taking his own technology into combat.

Jeff Heggemeier of the AFRL Directed Energy Directorate was one of six speakers at the second-annual AFRL Inspire, a TED Talks-style event, in October at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. Next year, AFRL Inspire is scheduled to happen in Albuquerque.

Heggemeier’s story started in the early 2000s, when he began working as a civilian program manager and technical lead on a high-powered microwave system to disable improvised explosive devices. Heggemeier and his team of military personnel, civilians and contractors worked on the system up to 18 hours a day, six or seven days a week, for seven years.

By 2012, the system, dubbed MAX POWER, was patented and ready for the battlefield, and Heggemeier was a major in the Air Force Reserves, activated to deploy with the system.

MAX POWER is a Marine truck with a 20-foot container on the back to hold the microwave source.

“This thing was pretty complicated,” Heggemeier said.

It contained two jet engines to produce high-powered microwaves, with an antenna on front to direct the microwaves at suspected IEDs.

Five contractors, three Airmen — including Heggemeier, Capt. Mike Gifford and Tech. Sgt. Mike Anderson — and one soldier, Sgt. 1st Class Guill Marez, took MAX POWER to Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, for almost six months that year.

“Helmand’s kind of known for being the worst place in Afghanistan,” Heggemeier said.

A week after his team’s arrival, the Taliban attacked the base and destroyed nine aircraft. Great Britain’s Prince Harry was stationed there as an Apache helicopter weapons operator at the time, and the Taliban later said the attack was an attempt to capture him.

Heggemeier’s team worked with Marine Corps combat logistics units at first and then with Army combat engineers and Marine infantry. They joined patrols, leading the way in areas suspected of having IEDs so they could neutralize the bombs before other troops came through.

“So (there was) this Air Force major with a Ph.D. driving out in front of them; they thought that was pretty amazing,” he said.

Officers with a rank that high rarely ride at the front of patrols.

Heggemeier operated the system while Anderson or Marez drove.

“These were pretty dangerous missions,” he said. “We got shot at. I was within 100 meters of five IED blasts.”

Once, an explosion severely injured a Marine. Anderson pulled the man from his truck and carried him to a medical evacuation helicopter while taking sniper fire.

MAX POWER proved its usefulness.

“We went where there were more IEDs than anywhere in Afghanistan, and if it didn’t work, we wouldn’t have survived,” Heggemeier said.

During the first patrol with the Marine 2nd Battalion, 7th Regiment, MAX POWER broke on the way out of the secure area. Heggemeier’s team decided they’d be able to fix it at the first stop.

“As we were driving, I was taking the dash apart to see what was wrong with it,” he said.

The Marine commander said his unit wasn’t patrolling without the system. The team fixed the problem in 30 minutes and investigated seven possible IEDs on that patrol.

That day was good, but others were terrible. One of the Marines the AFRL team supported was killed.

Heggemeier found that his faith in God and relationships with people important to him allowed him to cope.

“I wouldn’t have survived being in Afghanistan or being back here after that if I didn’t have my faith,” he said.

During the deployment, his team developed a lot of trust, especially the military members who operated MAX POWER.

“Those guys risked a lot, to take this brand-new technology that had never been used before into combat and trust their lives to it,” he said.

His family continues to help him cope, Heggemeier said. He and his wife, Katie, have four children: 11-year-old Jack, 9-year-old Tom, 4-year-old Matthew and 2-year-old Alice.

Heggemeier now serves as the chief engineer for SHiELD, or Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator, a project to develop laser defense systems for military aircraft. He’s still a major, now in the Air National Guard.

AFRL is trying to transition MAX POWER to the Army, since it better fits the Army’s mission.

For more information on AFRL Inspire, visit afrlinspire.com. Eventually, possibly in mid-December, videos of this year’s presentations should be available via the website.