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Working in danger zones: ORAU forensic DNA examiners help piece together clues that save military lives

When an improvised explosive device detonates, the remaining pieces may hold clues about who created the device as well as the movement of their organization. Helping catch these terrorists ultimately saves the lives of our service men and women in combat zones. 

“We try to make use of every piece of forensic material and use it against [terrorists],” said Sean Crabbe, forensic DNA examiner. “We try to develop a little bit more of a biometric characteristic to identify these bad people.” Biometric characteristics are uniquely distinguishing characteristics of individuals, like DNA, fingerprints, ear forms, voice patterns and even signatures.

As a forensic DNA examiner, Crabbe looks for any evidence of touch DNA on items like wire fragments, screws, pressure plates (which can trigger an explosion when the plate touches a contact and completes a circuit), water bottles and electrical tape.

“It's typical that we would receive evidence that are either components of, or that functioned or didn't function, related to the production of IEDs,” he said.

Crabbe’s work involves asking a lot of questions, something he has done since childhood. Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, Crabbe was very curious, which led to pursuing a career in science. He graduated from the University of Hawaii with a bachelor of science in biology with a focus on biotechnology and molecular biology.

A colleague joined the Honolulu Police Department in 2008 and thought Crabbe would be a great fit, so he followed suit. He worked as a criminalist and became a DNA analyst, where he did casework and DNA databasing. In 2012 he joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a DNA examiner and held several roles before joining the ORAU team at the Defense Forensic Science Center in Forest Park, Georgia, in 2019.

Crabbe said The Hurt Locker, the 2008 film about the travails of an ordnance disposal team during the Iraq War, gives a decent depiction of his team’s approach to their work.

Crabbe works as part of a team at the Forensic Exploitation Directorate at DFSC. He describes the FXD as a mobile, modular and scalable group that conducts forensic investigations in theaters of military operations like Honduras, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Bahrain and Djibouti. His team is prepared to travel to Djibouti as soon as pandemic travel restrictions are lifted.

The team is comprised of individuals who specialize in chemistry, DNA, latent fingerprints, firearms, logistics and IT.

“We don't send all capabilities, we send only the capabilities that are requested to drive and support these overseas forensic investigations,” Crabbe said.

While movies and television shows depict forensic DNA examiners as amateur or professional sleuths who both examine the evidence and then solve the crime, Crabbe said it doesn’t quite work that way. His work is part of a larger puzzle that feeds into developing profiles of terrorists, their IED manufacturing methods, and even their movements over ground.

“We provide a unique biometric of who this individual or these individuals are and that element supports the bigger picture,” he said. “There are other components that add to it, but DNA is so specialized, we have such very highly sensitive equipment and instrumentation and we then have to go through so much validation and quality control procedures that we want to make sure that what we're getting is reliable and accurate.”

Crabbe is a qualified DNA examiner in an accredited forensic laboratory because of his ability to demonstrate the reliability and accuracy of his work.

“It's not like the Wild West where we're just kind of running things and they’re [lab work results] not really substantiated. There are no questions about how we got the results or what they mean. We can answer those questions,” he said.

While Crabbe and the other members of his team are waiting for deployment, he said life is anything but quiet. His is one of four teams that travel in rotation to military theaters of operation, one team at a time for six months at a time on a 24-month cycle; the remaining teams support stateside operations while waiting for or returning from deployment.

For Crabbe, this includes recently escorting and supporting technicians to work on four genetic analyzers, highly sensitive pieces of equipment that were sent back to DFSC stateside lab from deployed labs for servicing. Because of the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing guidelines, there were only three people in the lab, all of which made for a very long 14-hour day.

“This wasn’t a one-off, these are things that happen regularly,” Crabbe said. “We’re tied up in so many different things, and there’s an eight-and-a-half to nine-hour difference between Eastern Time and our folks halfway around the world. They [deployed personnel] really don't have anywhere to go, so their need escalates to the top. I wouldn't want to be stranded when I need something.”

It’s all part of the job, he said. And Crabbe’s job, along with the work of his team members, is to use his expertise to save lives.

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About ORAU

ORAU, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, provides science, health, and workforce solutions that address national priorities and serve the public interest. Through our specialized teams of experts and access to a consortium of more than 150 major Ph.D.-granting institutions, ORAU works with federal, state, local, and commercial customers to provide innovative scientific and technical solutions and help advance their missions. ORAU manages the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

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