It’s been a difficult road that’s spanned nearly a decade, a national tragedy and a global pandemic to bring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Transatlantic Middle East District (TAM) back to Lebanon, but TAM has returned in hopes of providing engineering solutions to some of Lebanon’s toughest challenges.
With a total program worth over $5 billion, the District provides engineering, construction and related support services throughout the Middle East but hasn’t had an active construction program in Lebanon since 2010. In March of 2019, TAM visited Lebanon at the request of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) Commander in Chief to provide a site assessment of the Port of Tripoli LAF Naval Base. Additional visits were scheduled for early 2020 when the COIVD pandemic hit.
“We were really excited to be back in Lebanon,” said Dan Terbilcox, the District’s lead project manager on Lebanon efforts. “We were going to go back in the spring this year but the pandemic put a hold on travel though we kept working with the Lebanese to do as much as we could virtually but were hoping we could return late this year or early next.”
On Aug. 4, a chemical explosion rocked Beirut, causing significant damage across the city. The Office of Defense Cooperation in Lebanon (ODC-L) reached out to the Corps of Engineers to see if they would be able to provide assistance.
“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has always assisted with disasters when called upon,” said Col. Philip Secrist, TAM’s commander. “Since our District doesn’t normally work in the United States, we don’t normally have that part of the mission though we certainly have the skillsets. We were honored to get the call and thankfully, we’d just reestablished our relationship with the Lebanese Armed Forces.”
Terbilcox, who had been working towards a trip late in the year, jumped into action to get a team assembled and began working through the logistical hurdles needed to get the team there as soon as possible.
“The team had several requirements that needed to be completed prior to departure. Things such as a COVID-19 test, security briefings and so on. We were hit with new requirements almost daily that out team had to react to and accomplish. We frequently found ourselves using a favorite military motto, Semper Gumby which means ‘Always Flexible.’ Flexibility was the key to our success in mobilizing, completing all requirements and making sure we could depart. But more than our flexibility, it was also the Department of State, ODC-L, the Regional Security Office Lebanon and other agencies who worked what appeared around the clock to ensure that we arrived in Lebanon and were ready to execute our mission,” said Terbilcox.
Once on the ground in Lebanon, the team immediately got to work.
“We were not only able to assess the damage to the Naval base, we were able to complete our originally scheduled site surveys and planning efforts,” said Terbilcox.
While surveying one of the sites, the team learned that the LAF had their own surveyors available who volunteered to assist the District in their assessments.
“One of the coolest things you get to do with TAM is work closely with people from the countries where we operate,” Terbilcox explained. “Getting to work side by side with their surveyors not only allowed us to get more data than we previously thought we’d get, but share expertise and viewpoints.”
Secrist agreed, saying that those types of exchanges are a key part of his district’s mission.
“We’re not the State Department, we’re not diplomats, but I like to think that in some small way these relationships we build at the peer to peer level in the countries where we work pay long term dividends. We sometimes find ourselves working with general officers who may have worked closely with us 15 or 20 years ago as a captain. They know the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the quality, expertise and reputation we bring to the table and they want that,” Secrist said.
At the end of the trip, the team out-briefed the Assistant Secretary for the Near East and Africa, David Schenker, as well as Ambassador Dorothy Shea. In the meeting, Ambassador Shea described the Army Corps of Engineers as "the gold standard" in their field, explaining that the survey was an important component of the post-blast assistance from the U.S. government, and noted how proud she was that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could reaffirm U.S. support for Lebanon with their visit.