Spurred by Gratitude, 'Bomb Lady' Develops Better Weapons for U.S.
Saturday, December 1, 2007
On the nights when no mortar shells fell, Anh Duong listened to the Saigon crickets. More often, though, the girl lay by her open window, her hair damp against her cheeks, and wondered, as the lights from flares flickered on the leaves of a plum tree, if the next Viet Cong rocket would smash into her house.
"Why would you want to randomly blow up civilians?" Duong remembers thinking.
Now, at age 47 and living in Maryland, Duong is still grappling with the question, trying to apply bedtime lessons from Vietnam to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Duong is known as "the bomb lady" around the Pentagon and as the engineer behind America's first thermobaric, bunker-busting explosive. A 5-foot-1-inch suburban mother of four, Duong has become, according to Thomas A. Betro, director of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, "one of the most important weapons-developers of the modern era."
For Duong, who was honored recently as one of the federal government's top civil servants, producing tools for U.S. troops is a way of life. After years of pioneering explosives for the Navy, she now creates systems to help identify terrorists.
"I don't want My Lai in Iraq," Duong said at the Pentagon, where she works on anti-terrorism issues as a science adviser. "The biggest difficulty in the global war on terror -- just like in Vietnam -- is to know who the bad guys are. How do we make sure we don't kill innocents?"
Duong's most recent innovation, the Joint Expeditionary Forensics Facilities (JEFF) project or "lab in a box," analyzes biometrics. It will be delivered to Iraq at the beginning of 2008, the Navy said, to help distinguish insurgents from civilians.
"The best missile is worthless if you don't know who to shoot," Duong said.
Betro said the military has been scanning the irises and taking the fingerprints of Iraqis, feeding a biometrics data base in West Virginia. To date, a few ad hoc labs have processed about 85,000 pieces of evidence taken from weapons caches or roadside devices. Duong's mobile forensic labs, with an initial budget of $34 million, will be deployed all over Iraq.
Duong, whose nickname is " 'klutz' in Vietnamese," and who wears frosted-pink nail polish over the objections of her teenage daughter ("That's hideous, Mom,") supervised the "lab in a box" design.
Each collapsible, sand-colored, 20-by-20-foot unit has its own generator and satellite link. If things go as planned, data will beamed to the Biometric Fusion Center to check against more than a million Iraqi fingerprints. Hundreds of Marines are learning how to process a crime scene, "an unheard-of tactic . . . snapping on rubber gloves," Betro said.
The next stage is to miniaturize, create "a backpack lab," so that soldiers who encounter a suspect "could find out within minutes" if he's on a terrorist watch list, Duong said. "A war fighter needs to know one of three things: Do I let him go? Keep him? Or shoot him on the spot? In Vietnam, our guys didn't have this tool."
In Vietnam, Duong recalled, her family befriended American airmen who served on a nearby base. The day Saigon fell, her brother, a South Vietnamese air force pilot, loaded her relatives onto a helicopter. Duong was 15.