August 10, 2006

To Iraq and back: Soldier uses Linux in war and peace

Author: Tina Gasperson

In 2003 and 2004, Jeff Schroeder served in the Iraq war, flying a tiny remote control spy plane and servicing Unix and Linux systems on the battlefield. Schroeder learned a lot of technology in the desert, and now that his time in the Army is over, he's busy working as a Web administrator for Comair Airlines, and writing utility scripts for Ubuntu, his favorite distribution. He believes Linux is going to "take over the world."

A high school teacher introduced Shroeder to Linux in 1999. "It was in networking class," he says. "I had a guy who was a big Linux zealot, and he was like, 'This is the next big thing.' I deeply respected this guy." Schroeder took him seriously and started playing around with Red Hat at home.

In 2001 he enlisted in the Army as an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Operator, a.k.a. 96U. "I flew a remote control spy plane called the Shadow 200," Schroeder says. When he was deployed to Iraq in 2003, he was happy to find that, even in the desert, Linux would still be a big part of his life.

The Shadow is a Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (TUAV) that performs surveillance using a liquid nitrogen-cooled camera. Operators run the plane from a ground control station that is a retrofitted Humvee loaded with a bank of computers running the Solaris operating system and "locked-down" Java apps. The Shadow sends pictures and video back to a ruggedized laptop video terminal that runs a custom version of Red Hat 9 Linux. "The laptop connects to a little directional antenna that tracks the plane," Schroeder says. "There were always problems with [the laptops]," and since Schroeder knew Linux, he was called on to detect and fix those problems. "The contractors the military hired weren't very Unix-savvy," he says.

Schroeder says that the military effort in Iraq is laced with technology that makes use of open source software. One example is the Army's Land Warrior program, in which soldiers will be "wired" with special embedded Linux computers that allow them to communicate with each other and track enemy locations.

Now that Schroeder is a civilian again, he says he is glad to have had the opportunity to serve his country and pick up some great skills at the same time, using his Army training as a stepping stone in his career as a Web administrator for Comair, a regional airline based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Schroeder oversees the operation of about two dozen application servers and a cluster of Apache servers, and he also performs day-to-day Unix and Linux systems administration.

In his spare time, Schroeder helps people install Linux on their computers. He's a big fan of Ubuntu. "I used Fedora before," he says, "and still use it for servers. But all of my desktops are running Ubuntu." To make Ubuntu even better, Schroeder's written several utility scripts, including a popular snippet he calls Faster Dapper. "I like things to be a little faster," he says. "I wrote the script for myself." Faster Dapper enables certain features of Ubuntu, such as preload, a daemon that analyzes file usage patterns and preloads the apps you use the most, and Faster Dapper disables lots of services that are enabled by default. "Bluetooth stuff," he says. "I don't use that on my laptop. It takes two seconds to load that daemon. If there are, say, 14 services loading that you don't need..."

Schroeder also created a script called Pretty Dapper that automatically sets up his preferred theme and desktop icons, and Secure Dapper, which results in "basic system hardening." He says that he plans soon to port Faster Dapper to Fedora and openSUSE. Examples of Schroeder's work are available at his Web site,


  • Linux
Click Here!