Humble Hero

October 8, 2009

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Rocket attacks. Kidnapping threats. Suicide bombers.

Life was not easy for Dr. John Muth during his recent tour of duty as a U.S. Navy reservist in Iraq.

For 12 months, the NC State electrical and computer engineering professor negotiated Iraq’s violence and sticky politics as he led a team of 30 civilians, military personnel and translators providing advice and support to the nation’s Ministry of the Interior. The ministry will eventually take charge of all internal security in Iraq, allowing the Iraqi army to focus on external threats.

His efforts did not go unnoticed. Earlier this spring, Muth received a Bronze Star for his service, which included performing more than 100 missions in dangerous situations, installing a system of human rights inspections at pretrial detention centers and setting up the ministry’s court system.

The work was markedly different from his research and teaching responsibilities on NC State’s Centennial Campus, but there were some similarities, too.

“What I was doing in Iraq was problem solving,” he said, “and ultimately engineering is about solving problems.”

Muth’s work in Iraq covered a range of activities. In addition to advising senior Iraqi leadership at the Ministry of Interior, he wrote briefings and reports and managed a staff of lawyers, police officers, strategic planners and media experts. He also met and dined with Iraqi generals at their homes, a rare honor for a coalition member.

The job had its pluses and minuses. On one hand, Muth was able to interact with Iraqis every day, something his base-bound peers rarely got to do. On the other hand, wading into the ministry’s politics was a complicated and dangerous assignment.

“There is a lot of assassination, murder and kidnapping that can be either ideologically or financially motivated,” he said. “A lot of the people I worked with were specifically targeted by insurgents.

“The courage of the Iraqis I worked with who were trying to improve their country was impressive.”

In between all that, Muth kept up with the work of his students back at NC State. During various breaks in his tour, he participated in six defenses of master’s theses and doctoral dissertations. He also reviewed papers bound for scientific journals.

Muth’s military career began in the 1980s when he attended college on an ROTC scholarship. He was commissioned into the U.S. Navy and served in the submarine force for five years before leaving active duty and serving as a reservist.

Then, on Dec. 19, 2007, he received a phone call. He was to report for active duty in two weeks.

That notification changed his life, but he credits NC State faculty for smoothing the transition. As his graduate students continued to focus on their work, Muth’s faculty colleagues stepped in to provide support with research publications and presentations.

“Having my colleagues help with these mentoring roles is very important for the students’ development,” he said.

This fall, Muth resumed his teaching and research in nanoelectronics and photonics, for which he has received awards from the National Academy of Engineering, the Office of Naval Research and other agencies. He holds six patents and has more than 90 journal publications to his credit.

And now he has a Bronze Star, an honor rarely awarded to Navy personnel because relatively few of them have been assigned to combat zones in Iraq.

“It can get hectic juggling different responsibilities, but I like keeping busy,” Muth said. “I enjoy the intellectual challenges of the university and the academic freedom to research subjects I choose.

“With the military, it is a new challenge every day and I like the sense of higher purpose of being part of national defense.”