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UC Geology Graduate Was One of the First Soldier-Scientists Deployed to War Zone

Alexander Stewart used the science skills he learned at the University of Cincinnati to join a counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan.

Date: 1/17/2014 12:00:00 AM
By: Courtney Danser
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Alexander Stewart

UC ingot  
McMicken College of Arts and Sciences geology graduate Alexander Stewart joined the military at age 17 and was a part of it for more than 20 years. But when the National Guard called him in 2008, they were more interested in his PhD in glacial geology—which he received from UC in 2007—than his experience in the military.

That’s because he was one of the first soldier-scientists to be selected to join a counterinsurgency mission in a war zone, and in this case, Afghanistan. While Stewart had spent nine years in school studying to become a professor, the military had other plans for him. 
Alexander Stewart at Band-e Sultan Dam
Alexander Stewart collecting information at the Band-e Sultan Dam

His mission during Operation Enduring Freedom wasn’t to take down a terrorist or fight off the Taliban, it was to test the strength of the recently repaired wall at the Band-e Sultan Dam in Ghazni to determine if it would collapse again, the same way it collapsed on March 29, 2005—flooding Ghazni city and killing 14 people. 

Stewart never imagined using his degree in geology to do research in a war zone, but he knew the work he was doing was essential for the lives of innocent civilians in Afghanistan. 

“If you don’t control the one month of water you get from the Hindu Kush mountain range, you’re without water for 11 months,” Stewart told Science Magazine. 

Even though being in a war zone was something he had become familiar with after years in the military, Stewart faced other challenges on this mission. “The environment for me was not psychologically stressful,” he says. “The stressful thing for me was making sure that I did all of my homework before we went out on a mission.” 

Since the location of the dam was under Taliban control and many contractors had been killed while working on the site, construction efforts there had been delayed. But because Stewart was a soldier in an army unit, he was allowed to operate in and around the dam. 

“My mission was to collect as much information about the dam in approximately 60 minutes,” says Stewart. That was a constricting time frame because of the massive size of the dam. He spent 30 minutes walking through the dam, taking measurements and making observations, and another 30 minutes collecting data about the wall repair to estimate the “safe” reservoir level. 

“Turns out the ‘safe’ level for the reservoir was only 40 percent of the height of the wing wall,” says Stewart. “Without continued repair efforts, this wing wall reduced the volume of the ‘safe’ reservoir level by over 60 percent.” 

And Stewart had the pressure of having to collect all of this data without putting the rest of his team in danger. “That was the stress to say, you know guys, when I hit the ground I’m going to collect data in the most efficient way possible,” he says.  

Although Stewart was not participating in active combat, the mission was still a dangerous one. “There were lives at stake,” he says. “We lost 33 percent of our team in that mission.”

Stewart is now doing what he had planned on all along; he is an assistant professor of geology at St. Lawrence University in New York after his detour through Afghanistan.

“All said and done, I am glad I was able to retire from the army having used my civilian qualifications to support the war.” 

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