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Face of Defense: A Chemist’s Journey to Make ‘Bad Unknowns’ Known

Having grown up not far from the Army Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, Irvine Swahn knew at a young age that he would probably end up working there someday. He started as a base forklift driver before transferring in 1984 into an entry-level chemist position for the Edgewood Research, Development and Engineering Center as he began his last year of college. 

Job Title:



Street, Md.


Aberdeen Proving Ground-South 


CBRNE Analytical and Remediation Activity (CARA) Mobile Expeditionary Lab 

Fast forward nearly 40 years, and you’ll still find Swahn working at APG. But he had a few stops on his career path in between Army gigs, and those helped make him a leader in the field of chemical warfare agent science. He’s worked in some intense situations — in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan, to name a few — and seen a lot of changes in technology. Nowadays, he’s passing his extensive knowledge on to others and reminding all up-and-coming scientists that there are a lot of civilian careers available within the DOD — all you need to do is get your foot in the door.  

Swahn is a chemist within the 20th Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, Explosives Command’s CBRNE Analytical and Remediation Activity – simply known as CARA. It’s an all-civilian organization that has four main mission sets:  

  • Conducting mobile lab operations at the level III Theater Validation level in support of DOD operations. 
  • Supporting emergency response missions for suspected recovered chemical warfare material. 
  • Supporting remediation operations at formally used defense sites and other areas within the U.S.  
  • Providing technical escort to move chemical agents within the U.S.  

There are a lot of nasty, nasty chemical weapons out there. [I’m proud] knowing we were able to clean up about 98% of them — 98% of the world’s stockpile.”

Army Chemist Irvine D. Swahn

It may sound complicated to some, but Swahn said his role really isn’t. As a chemist at the CARA mobile labs, he receives air, soil and water samples from military and civilian units, then prepares and analyzes them on various instruments to identify whether they contain dangerous chemicals that might cause harm.  

“That’s a whole lot of words to say we make the bad unknowns known,” Swahn said. And the preparation is key. “You have to prepare those correctly for each specific instrument because you can get a little bit of information from one instrument, then more information from another. We have multiple chemical databases, which are libraries used by the instruments to identify those unknown compounds in samples collected.” 

Swahn trains new chemists on how chemical warfare agents are made, on how they break down in the environment and about their physical and toxicological properties. This information better equips CARA chemists to handle and analyze the dangerous compounds. Swahn also develops new methods for analyzing samples to better look for unknown chemical compounds — or, as he said, “that needle in a haystack.”   

Training Soldiers 

Swahn works with soldiers, too. He’s currently gearing up to prepare realistic drills for units at various Army training centers so soldiers can learn to recognize certain chemicals and equipment that’s used to store, fill or make weapons – from synthesis labs up to full-scale industrial production plants. He also teaches them how to identify the most significant evidence and how to collect it properly.   

Since the 1980s when Swahn first started his career, technological advancements have sped up chemists’ ability to separate samples and do analysis on a greater number of chemicals.  

“Now, you have instruments with hundreds of thousands of compounds in a library, and you can put any chemical in and get on-the-spot identification,” Swahn said. “And now we’re using a lot of handheld instruments, which top the big dinosaur instruments I started on. … It’s quite impressive how far we’ve come in the past 25 to 30 years.” 

Swahn’s training expertise comes from his extensive background in working with chemical weapons. In fact, his resume really couldn’t be more impressive. Here are just some of the highlights:  

He took part in missions for the United Nations Special Commission in Iraq after the first Gulf War.

This included going to Iraq’s former chemical warfare agent research and production facility, Al Muthanna, after the 1991 war. His job: to verify the country’s chemical weapons stockpiles had been destroyed and that there was no on-site contamination. Later, he spearheaded the setup, manning and training of international analysts at the Baghdad Monitoring and Verification Center, the lab the UN Special Commission built to oversee the dismantling of the country’s chemical weapons.  

“They gathered all the chemical weapons they had across the countryside and brought them there to be destroyed,” Swahn said. “It was interesting being in a former chemical weapons production facility… and working with the Iraqis.” 

Swahn also helped draft many of the verification procedures that future inspectors would use there.

He worked in the Netherlands from 1997-2012 in the first group of inspectors tasked with eliminating chemical weapons stockpiled worldwide.

Swahn did this for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, headquartered in the Netherlands, which implements the Chemical Weapons Convention, an agreement that went into effect in 1997 that works to end the development, production, stockpiling, transfer and use of chemical weapons for prohibited purposes. 

“You can still make chemical weapons,” Swahn said. “We can make them here in small quantities for nonprohibited purposes like testing, detection and decontamination studies. It’s chemical-biological defense.” 

Swahn initially developed sampling and analysis procedures and carried out inspections in countries that had joined the convention. Eventually, he become a team leader with a wide range of responsibilities that included training inspection teams and team leaders. He also planned and conducted more than 60 international inspections. These teams had full diplomatic status that provided them special protection during their inspections. His last two years with the organization had him coordinating and planning some difficult missions to some volatile countries such as Libya, Russia, Pakistan and Iraq. 

“OPCW is kind of the watchdog of the world for the CWC to make sure these countries – that whatever chemical weapons agents they’re making are in small quantities for protective purposes,” Swahn said. “Its second job is to look at industry and make sure all these chemicals that can be used to make chemical weapons aren’t diverted. We did many inspections at regular industrial plants all over the world.”

During his time at the OPCW, the organization won a Nobel Peace Prize for its extensive work on eliminating chemical weapons.

“The prize was won for the work they did from 1997 to 2013, and I was there from 1997 to 2012,” Swahn said. 

His humility about the experience was evident in his lack of words for it.   

“It was very worthwhile — an adventure,” he said. “It was a great accomplishment to be involved in.”

He was indirectly part of notable moments in history.

Swahn recalled a trip to Pakistan where inspections were delayed for weeks due to terrorist activity. He and his team ended up doing the inspection with armed escorts. He was also involved with many inspections in Libya, where he was one of the first people to sample and analyze their chemical weapons. One of the inspection teams he was on finished its work and left Libya just two days before the country’s longtime leader, Muammar Gaddafi, was killed in October 2011.  

“Sometimes I felt out of my league negotiating special missions with ambassadors and high-ranking government officials, as with Libya, which was falling apart at the time,” he remembered.  

Swahn was also the first American to inspect Chinese military sites in 1998. It was a media circus that he found daunting.  

“There were all these reporters, and they went right past our team leader. They wanted to talk to the American [me],” he remembered. “These people were shoving mics in your face and throwing all these questions at you … and our public affairs guy was saying, ‘Whatever you do, don’t talk to reporters!’ 
“I was just doing my job and trying to stay out of the politics,” Swahn said.

Returning to the Army 

Swahn returned to his military roots in 2012 to do chemistry research and training for various Army directorates. He spent about four years training Army National Guard soldiers, Reservists and their civil support teams and science offices on lab operations for the Army Chemical Biological Center. He still does this a few weeks every year. 

Swahn was working for CARA in 2016 when he deployed with its mobile lab to Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, to set up and take samples from the area for U.S. Central Command. 

“It was inspiring to support commanders in the field who were making critical decisions on completing their mission while not risking their forces,” Swahn said. “I helped answer questions like, ‘How do we detect these agents?’ ‘How long do we have to stay away from areas where this stuff was disseminated?’ And, ‘What are the effects of these types of chemicals?'”  

A Career’s Worth of Memorable Moments 

Over the span of nearly four decades, Swahn has worked at multiple weapons destructions sites in countries all over the world. He’s trained inspectors of all nationalities and helped develop various chemical-biological defense programs. Needless to say, he’s had a lot of memorable experiences. But he said his favorites have been the travel and the camaraderie.  

“Walking through Red Square in Moscow, on top the Great Wall of China, and traveling to the Taj Mahal and the Great Pyramids at Gisa are just a few of the most memorable experiences,” he said. “Getting to see the magnificent, well-preserved Roman ruins of Sabratha and Leptis Magna [in Libya] was the chance of a lifetime … and seeing the ancient ruins of Babylon, Hatra and Samarra [in Iraq] wasn’t bad, either.”  

He said the occasional tension between countries was also pretty memorable.  

“Whenever you went anywhere, they always suspected you of being a spy, and we always suspected them of being spies,” Swahn said. “I started working before the end of the Cold War, when we were against the Russians. Then, 10-15 years later, I’m in Russia negotiating with these same guys who were thinking about how to kill us, and we were thinking about how to kill them.” 

As for one of the craziest moments?  

“In April 1998, I was showered by a plume of liquid Sarin agent that covered my protective suit during a live agent collection at a destruction facility,” he said. “It was pretty crazy, but keeping a cool head and good decontamination allowed me to survive!” 

Swahn said the things he’s most proud of are the opportunities he had to train various military units in chemical weapons defense and the work he did for the OPCW.  

“There are a lot of nasty, nasty chemical weapons out there,” he said. “[I’m proud] knowing we were able to clean up about 98% of them — 98% of the world’s stockpile.”   

Advice for Future Scientists 

For up-and-coming scientists who are looking to get their foot in the door along a similar career path, Swahn said they need to find what they want and make it happen.  

“Dream big, study hard, be willing to travel around the world, and be the best at anything you do,” he said.  

For Swahn, that meant finding a way to be indispensable when he first started at that entry-level chemist position. At the time, he said the ERDEC was developing a new and complicated system to analyze particulates from old munitions. Only he and one other man knew how to use it properly — and that other man was leaving the job.  

“When that guy left, they didn’t really have a backfill, so they said, ‘We’ve got to find a way to get [Swahn] on, because he’s the only one who knows this instrument,'” Swahn recalled. “That’s how I got the full-time position.”  

And the rest, as they say, is history.

This article, Face of Defense: A Chemist's Journey to Make 'Bad Unknowns' Known, was first published by The Department of Defense.

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30 days ago

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