USACE volunteer professionals provide TAA surge

USCE Transatlantic Afghanistan District
Published Aug. 19, 2013
Megan Cullen, from USACE New England District stands with USACE St. Louis District volunteers Rachel Lopez and Bryan Dirks and USACE Vicksburg volunteer District Brad Brady.  These are four of the sixteen construction surge team volunteers. (Official USACE TAA Photo by T.W. Lyman/released)

Megan Cullen, from USACE New England District stands with USACE St. Louis District volunteers Rachel Lopez and Bryan Dirks and USACE Vicksburg volunteer District Brad Brady. These are four of the sixteen construction surge team volunteers. (Official USACE TAA Photo by T.W. Lyman/released)

KABUL, Afghanistan — There are few organizations with the means and resources to supply highly trained, skilled and enthusiastic professionals to a remote location on a short notice when a need is identified. Fortunately for Transatlantic Afghanistan District, USACE is an organization with a deep pool of talent from which to draw while working to deliver critical infrastructure for the Afghan people. Mark Jones, TAA Engineering and Construction Division Chief, explained the need at TAA and the solution.

“With the standup of the Transatlantic Afghanistan District, a short-term need for additional construction quality assurance personnel was identified due to the number of newly awarded projects in the Kabul area. The surge team, made of sixteen construction and engineering personnel from around the country, has responded for 90-day taskers. During this period, the surge personnel will augment the existing staff with project submittals, RMS data and completing necessary modifications required to keep pace with the dynamic environment in Afghanistan.”

Jones, with command concurrence, contacted Transatlantic District to find suitable manpower for a 90-day surge in support of the mission. 

The result: 15 USACE personnel provided by Corps districts across the U.S. arrived at Camp Phoenix July 21 eager and ready to get to work. Another arrived later. All were assigned to support TAA’s Kabul Area Office.

Col. Richard Heitkamp is the officer-in-charge for KAO. “And looking at how we resized the district, we’ve gone from two districts to one, and we’ve reduced our manpower both on the staff and at our area and resident offices. All because we understand that our mission in Afghanistan is drawing to a close. But conversely our project missions are as big as ever. So we’re trying to take advantage of our last two construction seasons before we are going to withdraw from Afghanistan. And in order to help the contractors make as much progress as possible during that construction period we have to be able to reply in a timely manner to questions, submittals, and just the regular process of administering a large construction contract. So what these great Americans have done is to come over here and jump on board. Not typically anything exotic, it is just the day-to-day requirements of administering a construction contract,” he said.

While responding to requests from contractors and working submittals are part of an ordinary day for those who’ve been with the Corps in Afghanistan over time, such activity is anything but routine for the surgers.

“They get what we say is like three times the amount of experience for time they spend here. So every day is worth three days of experience. That is our recruiting phrase, right?” Heitkamp asked.
“Four or five, more like,” corrected Bryan Dirks, a civil engineer from St. Louis District. The surge team agreed in unison with a groan.

Heitkamp praised the team’s qualifications, willingness to get to work and their contributions.

“So it’s been a great blend of experience. Most of them are out of school and have an initial experience with the Corps, an initial amount of construction experience and that works great because it is a win-win for them and for us. They get some great experience, and work with some experienced engineers on some interesting problems contractually in administering these contracts. These aren’t the typical things you find back in the States. But it really makes you understand administration, what the Corps’ role is. So they win with the experience and we win because we have some great engineers who are able to surge on the projects who can help us with things without a lot of spin-up time required. So it’s been very successful so far. All of the people who’ve come over have integrated very quickly and gotten up to speed on their projects and have been a big help.”

Joe Kellett is the chief of the TAA construction branch. He aided in surge team recruitment.

“We put a lot of time and effort into selecting the folks on our ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) surge team. The surge has worked beyond my expectations. These folks have given us a tremendous boost with their spirited work and ready camaraderie and they have already had a significant, positive impact on our program in just their first 30 days. The depth of talent in USACE is remarkable and it is always elating when those talented folks come forward to meet a challenge,” he said.

Evan Taylor, a geotechnical engineer from St. Louis District at TAA as a surge team member, worked with contractors.

“Working with contractors has been very easy, positive. Even if the experience wasn’t there, there was still the will to do well. Their willingness is definitely there. They try. They want to do well,” he said.

Taylor hopes to gain experience working with construction here.

“I did a lot of design at home, so I was on the other side of it but I dealt with construction. That was one of the reasons I wanted to come here: a) I wanted to get some construction experience, b) we’re a civil works district so this is experience with milcon (military construction). So that’s a big part of why I came here.’

Brad Brady, a project engineer here from Vicksburg District, added, “I’d say the vertical construction is something most of us don’t get to deal with at home.”

Dirks added, “Experience is a big part of why I came. I wanted to do this for a while, I put school on hold, I was told that they’re wrapping stuff up and there isn’t much time left, so I put other things on hold. We may not get the chance again in our careers to come over to a war zone and build stuff for the people in that area and do good things.”

There is one former military member in the surge group; Mario Guerrero, a St. Louis District geotechnical engineer. Guerrero spent four years in the Army in the telecommunications field. Surge team members’ Corps experiences range from three to seven years. Family members and stateside districts encouraged them to volunteer.

“My wife supported my deployment,” Guerrero said. “I learned about the opportunity when James Dalton from Headquarters, USACE spoke to our Leadership Development Program III group. He recommended deploying for career development.” 

Megan Cullen is a civil engineer from New England District. She said, “I got a lot of support once I said I wanted to go. When I told my supervisor I was interested he said, ‘Great. You should make it happen.’ But we didn’t have as many contacts. So it was tougher for me to go.”

While districts supported the volunteers, some family members’ responses were mixed.

Rachel Lopez, another St. Louis engineer, relayed, “My husband also works for the Corps as an engineer. He was like the biggest cheerleader for me to do this until it came down for the time to leave, and then he was, ‘What have I done?’” Nevertheless, Lopez precedes her husband, who has yet to deploy with the Corps.

One surger has now experienced what is a way of life for so many service members.

Brady said, “I have four kids, they’re young. My wife was very understanding. She knows I didn’t have the opportunity to come in uniform. But the kids took it a little harder. My oldest actually took it hardest.”

Cullen revealed what most multiple deployees have learned.

“I think it also depends on where you’re deploying to. When I talked to people who had deployed, just to get some information before I signed up, I had asked their experience and it’s very different than what I am experiencing here at Camp Phoenix. People I talked to were in forward operating bases and so I was expecting to be in the middle of nowhere being rocketed every day. I think it is awesome. Who gets to see this? We’re so lucky that we get to see this part of the world. And experience, well we’re not really experiencing the culture, but to see a little snapshot of the day-to-day life, I think it’s awesome.”

Preparing friends and family members is also part of the deployment experience.

Cullen continued, “When I was telling people that I was coming here they asked, ‘Is your family going to visit?’ I said, “It doesn’t work like that.”

Taylor clarified, “It’s not a vacation destination.”

Ultimately, as Heitkamp said, the construction surge team’s three months in Afghanistan is a win-win situation. More like a win-win-win. TAA is able to make good use of some of the brightest young engineers in America as we move closer to mission completion. The volunteers will leave behind finished projects vital to Afghanistan infrastructure and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will have sixteen professionals who know what it’s like to serve in a foreign land for the greater good. No doubt they will someday be the grizzled veterans at home districts who can regale future members who are trying to decide whether volunteering is right for them. TAA wins. The surge team members win. The Corps wins.