VICKSBURG, Miss. (Oct. 3, 2014) — Sometimes people share their knowledge and experiences without knowing the impact of their words.
Army Reserve Sgt. Randy Sandifer is one such individual.
Sandifer, a Pinola, Mississippi, native, joined the Army Reserve’s 412th Theater Engineer Command December 2001, as a personnel services specialist, his junior year of high school, completing basic training between his junior and senior years, and Advance Individual Training immediately following his graduation. Sandifer dreamed of being a scientist, so began his schooling with that goal at the University of Mississippi, as a forensic chemistry major. Then, just barely into his 20s, Sandifer received deployment orders to Iraq.
“At first, it took me off guard, but at the same time I had to answer those orders. I was very young. I was 21 or 22 when I got those orders,” said Sandifer. “Once I got over there, I had to find a role and my role was at first supporting the detachment as administrator, but I ended up volunteering to work here, work there. I ended up working in the soil laboratory, and on the environmental team.”
Sandifer didn’t know it at the time, but volunteering in the laboratory and on the environmental team would result in future opportunities he wasn’t expecting.
“I knew by being in those two laboratories that my time would go by faster, because I was keeping myself occupied, plus I was gaining experience in the laboratory,” said Sandifer. “I knew at the end of the day I wanted to be a scientist, so working in those two laboratories helped me build my foundation.”
Sandifer taught himself how to use the equipment and the proper techniques to support the mission.
The mission he and the environmental team were given was to clean up environmental hazards at Abu Ghraib prison, and ensure these hazards were not present at other locations.
To complete this, Sandifer and his team collected and tested soil samples for hydrocarbons.
“Before you are able to exit [an area of operation], it has to be to a certain standard, and that standard was the hydrocarbons in the soil couldn’t be over 1,000 parts per million, so this was a huge task,” Sandifer recalled. “Within this task, I had to test for the presence of hydrocarbons, then I had to go back and test for the parts per million of hydrocarbons, from my tests they wrote recommendations to excavate the soil and put down new soil or just clean it up.
“Then I had to go back and test again for the parts per million, making sure it was under that threshold of 1,000 parts per million,” he continued. “Once it was under 1,000 parts per million, then the prison was able to be closed down. It was a significant factor because they were waiting on my testing.”
Sandifer completed his mission and returned home. Once home he began giving speeches about what he did in Iraq, and the environmental impacts.
“I talked about the things I did over there, but not only the immediate understanding of what I did, but also how in the future, the benefits of the things I did over there and how it showed the United States, in a good eye, to the rest of the world,” said Sandifer.
During a speech at the University of Mississippi, in 2006, unbeknownst to Sandifer, there was a graduate student in the crowd taking his message to heart. In 2014, that student, now a professor, nominated Sandifer for the Nobel Prize.
Professor Jonathan Hutchins, assistant director of the Social Justice Initiative said, “Consequently, understanding the complexities of Mr. Sandifer’s efforts can easily be measured if he had not provided such level of environmental analysis for global environmental sustainment. The environmental effects would have been horrific if it were not for the non-violent scientific dedication exhibited by Mr. Sandifer,” in his nomination letter.
Sandifer hadn’t realized someone had embraced what he spoke about, in 2006.
“(Hutchins) just heard (the speech) and I guess he just kept it in mind,” said Sandifer. “Now, most recently 2014, given all the things surrounding global warming, I was talking about that back in 2006, and not being environmentally aware of our footprint, how it will be detrimental. Not just detrimental in the United States but the United States being in other countries, for world purposes how it will contribute to global warming.”
At the time of his speeches, Sandifer felt it had probably fallen on deaf ears, and it wasn’t until recently he came to believe people are finally listening.
“As I was talking about it, I knew it could happen, but in that time frame most people didn’t believe in global warming,” he said. “It was not until recently people were like, ‘This is something we really need to pay attention to. This is real.’ But, oftentimes, when you can’t see it, can’t smell it, but you can see the effects of it, then there is something there, but you don’t know exactly what it is. You are seeing the climate change and the weather change, well, there is a reason for that. And that reason is global warming.”
Sandifer never expected to be nominated for such a prestigious honor.
“I was (surprised to be nominated), because I didn’t think someone would hear the things I was saying, and remember them years later,” said Sandifer. “Sometimes, when you’re talking about something, in that time frame in 2006, there were a lot of other scientists in the crowd and they were like, ‘Oh, no, that’s impossible. There’s no such thing.’ But then some were like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s a good point.’ And now in 2014, here we are, and they’re seeing, yes, global warming is real.”
While Sandifer appreciates the nomination, he said just being an Army Reserve Soldier and serving his country was enough for him.
“Just a small amount of hydrocarbon being in the soil can throw an ecosystem completely off,” he explained. “Dealing with the Iraqis, and how they function, their ecosystem feeds directly to their livelihood because they raise livestock, they farm, they do so much in the environment they are in. They still live off the different rivers that run through there. Those hazardous materials being in the soil could seep into the water supply and go into the individuals’ natural resources so it was just keeping with the whole theme of we’re trying to leave Iraq better than the way we found it. I did so environmentally.”
The opportunity to help the Iraqis was important to Sandifer, but that opportunity also opened other doors for him.
“I went on from the 412th to the Army Crime Laboratory, which was always a dream of mine to work in forensic science at the Army Crime Laboratory, and July 2010, I was very fortunate to become a member of the Expeditionary Forensic Division under the United States Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory. Under this particular division, I deployed overseas to Afghanistan and provided capabilities.”
“Without my start in the Army Reserve, that wouldn’t have been possible,” he explained. “Being able to complete my deployment, my duty to have that level of responsibility at the time, being in those two laboratories, propelled me in terms of my job candidacy, in terms of getting a position with the Army Crime Laboratory.”
Sandifer also acknowledges the Army Reserve paved the path for his Nobel Prize nomination as well.
“I really appreciate it, and just being able to have the opportunity I would have never gotten if I wasn’t a part of the Army Reserve,” said Sandifer. “I’m very fortunate to have been a part of the 412th, and even more fortunate to be a part of the Army Reserve. I could have been in a whole different unit in a whole different [military occupational specialty] and ended up in a whole different situation, but things happen for a reason, and it put me in a situation where I could show my skills and my desire to learn and to work and to produce. That’s what I did when I was overseas.”
Sandifer said if it wasn’t for the foundation built by volunteering in the laboratories in Iraq as an Army Reserve Soldier, he doesn’t think he would have had so many opportunities to fulfill his dreams of being a scientist. He is very thankful to his leadership in Iraq in allowing him the chance to work in the laboratories and build his skills as a scientist.
Upon finding he was nominated, Sandifer worked to improve his chances.
“I’ve had multiple letters of endorsement and multiple letters of nomination, because after finding out I was being nominated I wanted to see if I could get other letters of nomination to support my case,” said Sandifer. “It was a short amount of time, but a lot of people sent in letters of recommendation, which solidified me being there. I don’t know what the results are going to be.”
Sandifer may not be in the running this year as the Nobel Committee can hold nominations over until the next year for a variety of reasons. Sandifer also will not know if he made the cut because the committee does not release nominees who were considered for 50 years. But, Sandifer is content just being in the running.
“It could be this year or it could be next year, but just being nominated is a blessing in itself,” said Sandifer. “The chance I win, I think that’s huge because it really just put to the forefront the things myself and the [Army Reserve 412th TEC] team that I was with, what we were doing and how significant it was.”
By Staff Sgt. Debralee Best