Patrick DeGroodt, an engineer at Aberdeen Proving Ground, led the development of a mobile communications system that allows soldiers to make phone calls and use secure Internet programs even in remote areas. (Photo courtesy of Kyle Bond, Baltimore Sun / July 1, 2014)

Imagine a life without smartphones, without Skype, without Wi-Fi-enabled laptops.

Now imagine being a soldier in Afghanistan, patrolling remote valleys with only the most basic form of communication: A radio that can transmit only to other soldiers within your line of sight.

For a decade, Patrick DeGroodt and his colleagues labored to improve battlefield communications for U.S. troops.

The result is the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, or "WIN-T" — a secure mobile communications system that allows soldiers to place phone calls, use military computer programs and send videos and photos via email, all from a souped-up Humvee driving down a dirt road halfway across the world.

"We've put that all into a vehicle so the soldier carries it with him," said DeGroodt, who works for the Army's Program Executive Office Command Control Communications-Tactical, or PEO C3T, at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

WIN-T, which was first deployed into war zones in 2012, enables soldiers to maintain constant communication with supervisors at their command post. They can also contact other groups of soldiers in the field and can call for help if they come under fire or suffer an injury.

For his work, DeGroodt has been named a finalist for the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal, awarded annually by the Washington-based Partnership for Public Service to honor excellence among federal workers. He is a finalist in the national security and international affairs category. The winner will be announced in September.

He was nominated by his supervisor, Mary Woods, the deputy program executive officer for PEO C3T. Woods said DeGroodt's work has had a "tremendous impact" on Army communications.

"He is a team player who is very in tune with soldiers' needs for information and is constantly looking for ways to improve our technologies on their behalf," she said.

Before WIN-T, DeGroodt said, soldiers patrolling remote areas were "basically disconnected." The WIN-T equipment is customized for Humvees, tanks and Stryker armored fighting vehicles. It uses satellite technology that enables secure voice and Internet use. Heavy-duty flatscreen monitors and keyboards are mounted as in a civilian police car. A helmet-friendly headset allows voice communications on the go.

An early version of WIN-T, called Increment One, worked only when the vehicle was stopped. It was a significant communications improvement over what had been available, but it couldn't be used by soldiers traveling through ravines or in remote areas.

Having Increment Two in place in Afghanistan is particularly important as the United States draws down its troops, DeGroodt said. Soldiers are still in the field, but they have fewer resources to help them. "We have less and less infrastructure."

Now troops can receive orders from commanders over the phone, view video from drones or even capture video while driving and send it back to their commanders.

Thousands of WIN-T-equipped vehicles have been deployed to Army brigades around the world. DeGroodt and his team continue to improve the systems. Every six months, the equipment and upgrades are tested at Fort Bliss in Texas and the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

Other finalists for the Heyman Medal in national security and international affairs include a program manager with the U.S. Agency for International Development who brought safe drinking water to Kenya and Uganda, a field representative with the State Department who coordinated efforts against the Lord's Resistance Army in Africa, a team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that launched a campaign to promote meningitis and pneumonia vaccines in Third World countries, and a pair of Air Force engineers who created an aerial sensor system.

"I'm very honored," said DeGroodt, who lives on the Eastern Shore. "It's very humbling to read what these people have done."

Lara Shane, a vice president with the Partnership for Public Service, said DeGroodt's work is impressive.

"He has connected soldiers that are in harm's way with commanders and connected them to the resources they need to survive," she said. "It's an incredibly difficult accomplishment and it's an important one. He literally is saving thousands of lives."

DeGroodt started his work on WIN-T in 2003 at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey. He had just returned from a five-year sabbatical in which he and his wife sailed around the world, so he understood what it was like to be out of touch.

He returned to work with that knowledge just as the United States was invading Iraq. As an electrical engineer with an interest in technology, DeGroodt was drawn to the idea of improving battlefield communications.

DeGroodt went to Aberdeen Proving Ground three years ago as part of the military base realignment process known as BRAC. He and his colleagues work in a sparkling new center that was built to accommodate the newcomers.

DeGroodt, who has worked as a civilian for the Navy and the Army for 30 years, described his job as rewarding.

"The work I do helps soldiers," he said. "There's a real feeling of helping the country."

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter