KENDALLVILLE — Losing a fellow soldier in battle is a tragedy no serviceman ever forgets.
It’s one Jonathan Springer wants fewer soldiers to experience. And his way of trying to do that is through a smartphone app he created.
Springer, of Kendallville, is the founder of Tactical NAV, a geo-location smartphone app. Created while he was still in service of the U.S. Army as a member of the 101st Airborne, the app allows soldiers in the field to pinpoint a location within a few feet, which can be useful for calling in artillery support.
A Kendallville native, he grew up in Columbia City where his dad served in law enforcement in Whitley County.
With about 100,000 downloads since its launch, Springer sometimes gets messages from soldiers in service about how they like the app or with their ideas on how to improve it. People are using it in the field and for Springer, now retired from the service, that’s worth all the effort.
“All I care about is protecting and saving lives and giving guys the tools that can help them,” Springer said. “When you lose guys, it’s just something that wears on you. It’s like a weight on your shoulder.”
Called to serve
Like many young men at the time, Springer enlisted after the deadly terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
He attended St. Francis University in Fort Wayne, but then 9/11 happened and Springer felt drawn to enlist.
“After 9/11, just like 90 percent that did the (Global War on Terrorism) thing, just felt a calling to serve yourself, to try to give back in any way,” Springer said.
He was deployed on multiple tours in the Middle East and his third tour in Afghanistan was in eastern Afghanistan in the Pech Valley and Korengal Valley area. Both of those are close to the border with Pakistan and were hot zones for combat.
Having risen to the rank of captain, about a month into that deployment, Springer lost two squadmates in an engagement with the enemy.
They weren’t the last.
“It really impacted me,” Springer said. “We went on to lose 22 more guys on that deployment and several hundred more were wounded. It got me thinking as an Army leader, as a soldier, the captain, what can I do?”
It was 2010 and smartphones were taking off as an everybody-has-it technology. With a powerful computer capable of fitting in your pocket, Springer saw an opportunity to turn a phone into a valuable piece of equipment in the field.
“I had an epiphany. I asked myself, I guess the light bulb went off and I got a little mad and said ‘Why isn’t the government using these things to help us in combat?’” Springer said. “Based on what we use technology-wise, I’m going to do what we need and combine components from numerous devices to make an app.”
Launching Tactical NAV
While still in the service, Springer took his life savings and connected with people in the tech community to begin developing his app.
His idea: A super-accurate location app that could be used to pinpoint any spot and give a tactical coordinate for it.
For example, you’re patrolling through the desert and your team starts taking fire from a ridge. With the app, you pull up a map and drag the crosshair over the place where the enemy is located and get a location to call in artillery support.
That wasn’t a novel concept, but his innovation was to put that technology into a person’s phone, instead of requiring a soldier to carry another piece of equipment.
“When you’re on the ground and you’re navigating, you’re carrying so much equipment,” he said. “It’s easy to pull out. A smartphone is a little bit bigger than a compass. It’s a little easier to pull out a smartphone and your ability to use your thumb to get coordinates.”
Springer doesn’t code, so he hired some developers to work on the program. The key was getting it accurate, because a geo-locator that can’t narrow down a target within a few feet would be useless in battle.
By the end of the year in 2010, he had a working beta of his app. While out in the field, he pulled out his smartphone and used it to check coordinates while calling in a two-gun battery support against some insurgents.
“We took out the bad guys and took out the weapon system. And that’s when I knew it worked,” Springer said.
Tactical NAV officially launched in February 2011 for download. Since then, it’s been downloaded about 100,000 times.
Springer says the app can be accurate within about 1 meter.