Those serving in the Army during the past two decades are more likely than not to have served in the Middle East. Few however, will get to experience the region the way Soldiers assigned to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Middle East District (MED) will.
Although the district has had a presence in the Middle East for over 60 years, most of the personnel assigned there were Department of Defense civilians. Recently however, District leadership began sending military personnel. The initiative began as an effort to take some of the administrative burden off MED’s forward personnel be creating officer in charge positions but it became quickly apparent that having Soldiers forward could provide other benefits as well.
“One of my predecessors originally began sending military personnel overseas to take the administrative burden off of our program managers,” said Col. Stephen Bales, MED’s commander. “We quickly realized though that there was much more they could bring to the fight. Our highest priority mission is support to U.S. Central Command and they are able to understand our mission partners' requirements to deliver warfighting capabilities. Additionally, a high percentage of our mission partners come from our partner nations’ militaries. On a personal level, it’s been extremely helpful to us to be able to have that military-to-military engagement. And finally, it builds a better bench for USACE in the future through developing our captains or majors by enhancing their technical, communication, and negotiation skills.”
Captain Scott Pancotto, who spent the last year stationed in Bahrain as a project engineer and program manager forward agreed.
“Like many Soldiers, I’ve been to the Middle East before. But in the past it’s always been with a deployment or combat mindset. This was completely different for me. I was living on the economy, interacting with people. It was really an opportunity to learn the nuances of the culture. As an example, if I wanted to learn about Islam, I could go to the grand mosque and just talk to people, ask questions. I found everyone to be very open.”
Although Pancotto was originally assigned to Bahrain as an officer in charge with an administrative support role, the District made the decision to make him a project engineer and project manager which gave him a much broader experience.
“A lot of military engineering is focused on building things up quickly for contingencies, or blowing things up,” he said. “This was a more deliberate kind of engineering dictated by code and law. The way USACE operates is similar to a commercial construction firm and needs to be very customer focused.”
The captain, who had previously worked in recruiting, said he was able to translate some of those customer engagement skills to his position in Bahrain.
“It’s all about communication. At the end of the day, we are all about doing what’s best for our stakeholders and they want to know they’ve got someone they can engage who will provide them with answers. I was lucky because my program wasn’t huge so I was able to drill down into the weeds to the point where I could answer someone’s question on a project I was managing without having to go back and ask someone else. I feel like that was appreciated.”
Pancotto said some of the other benefits of taking a position with MED were building marketable skills that would translate well to a civilian career when he leaves the military and the opportunity to see parts of the Middle East he might not otherwise have the opportunity to.
“I’m not planning on leaving the Army anytime soon,” said Pancotto, whose next assignment is the Army’s Command and General Staff School, “but managing construction projects and programs in this way is something a lot of engineering officers might not get the chance to do. In many instances, our mission partners have a choice on whether or not they want to use us. This assignment gave me a feel for what it might be like working at a commercial construction firm, answering to stakeholders, remaining on schedule and within budget to ensure we are the best choice.”
“I also really enjoyed the opportunity to get out and see the Middle East. Bahrain is an excellent gateway from which to travel to other countries. I got to see places that most people will only see in movies but never get to actually travel to. I really got to see and experience the different cultures.”
Engineer officers looking for a challenging assignment and the opportunity to expand their skillset should contact their branch chief to see if the district has positions available.