WINCHESTER, Va. – No area office in the Middle East District's charge has experienced more change in the past year than has the Iraq Area Office.
The office became the sole U.S. Army Corps of Engineers presence in Iraq on June 2, 2011, when a transfer of authority occurred between the deactivated Gulf Region District and the Iraq Area Office.
A month later, Lt. Col. Anthony Mitchell became the officer in charge, with Maj. Andrea Peters as his deputy. Then, the area office had 368 military, civilian and contractor personnel. Today, the area office's numbers have decreased substantially with 92 people now supporting the mission.
It manages 30 projects totaling nearly $350 million. The area office's work falls under the U.S. Embassy-Iraq with support to:
- The Iraq Strategic Partnership Office for Department of State projects: These projects support governance and private sector economy, as well as support Iraq Security Forces in reaching their minimum capabilities. Many of these projects are nearly complete.
- The Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq: These Foreign Military Sales projects support Iraq Ministry of Defense operations and include administrative offices, barracks, and Iraq Air Force facilities. FMS projects also support Iraq Ministry of Interior operations and include border roads and police facilities. The majority of the Middle East District's work in Iraq is now FMS projects. Another project unrelated to FMS – overhead covers – also supports OSC-I operations.
During the past year, the Iraq Area Office has adjusted its methods of doing business and its structure in line with the U.S. troop withdrawal in December 2011, the transition to Iraqi sovereignty, the completion of projects from the major reconstruction program that started in 2004, and the assumption of additional FMS work.
With the significant changes during the past year, Schappi Marsh, Iraq area engineer, said that he is "most proud of the establishment of a solid Iraq Area office that has shown the ability to get the job done."
He cited several project successes – completion of the international academy, communication facility, border roads, numerous police stations, schools, health facilities and Army facilities – all of which contribute to Iraq's sovereignty.
We provide construction oversight through the heavy usage of our local national force as lead engineers, project engineers, and quality assurance representatives," Marsh said. "These local citizens are able to visit jobsites without the necessity of a security force escorting them. They know Corps of Engineers procedures, and they help achieve quality and safety on our projects.
"USACE civilians are still able to visit project sites to perform construction inspections but not as frequently as in the past," Marsh continued. "We have been able to downscale our Army civilian force based on the availability of our local nationals, and this has resulted in considerable cost savings."
Iraqi citizens working for USACE are provided under a personal services contract with VERSAR of Springfield, Va.
"Many of these Iraqi citizens have worked for USACE for years," Mitchell said. "We heavily rely on them to help us deliver projects."
Within the last year, Ross Corbett and Ted Upson from the Middle East District headquarters served six-month tours as project engineers in the Taji Resident Office. Upson was there from April through October, and Corbett followed from October through April.
They worked side by side with the Iraqi project engineers and quality assurance representatives on projects that included a military security school, border roads, power, a police station, and renovations to the 7th Division Army camp.
"We relied on the Iraqi engineers and quality assurance representatives to monitor the contractor's performance," Corbett said. "Their role became even more critical after movements became much more difficult at the end of 2011, which resulted in (Army) civilians being able to go to unsecure areas to visit projects only a few times a month."
Both Corbett and Upson said that working with the Iraqi citizens was a highlight of their tours and they've maintained contact with many of them. "They are dedicated to the work and conscientious about meeting their requirements," Corbett said. "They submit reports every day. They are friendly, respectful and generous. They are good at their jobs."
Upson said the local nationals helped him with managing contractors' work as well. "Many of these contractors had not worked on USACE or similar contracts where they were required to follow certain quality and safety standards," he said.
"With our emphasis on building to code and the Iraqi nationals with them every day doing quality assurance, we were generally able to get good construction," Upson said. "Pulling them over the finish line at the end of a contract was often difficult for many reasons – some just having to do with how these firms were used to doing business. For example, sometimes it was a chore to get them to complete the punch list because they weren't used to finishing a project in that level of detail.
"We often met with contractors about finishing their projects," Upson said. "That's part of how USACE delivers a quality project. And that's what struck me about our presence – and the U.S. presence in Iraq: we help assure quality in everything we do."
"It takes hard work to move a project along and ultimately complete it," Peters said. "Iraq is no easy place to conduct our business."
Both Upson and Corbett said their Iraq assignment was beneficial as they perform their jobs in the Middle East District headquarters.
"For us to function effectively, we have to understand what our offices are doing in the forward locations," Corbett said. "We need to understand their work environment and learn the culture and societal differences. We need to know that sometimes they have only six to eight hours of electricity or that there are times when there's no running water. This knowledge helps us provide better support."
For Upson, "I need the firsthand experience of being there. As a construction manager, I'm always dealing with deployed individuals so I need to understand what they go through.
"Plus, it's just a great experience to be that close to the construction," Upson said. "Even though I was restricted by movement, I could talk daily with our local nationals and review the status of construction and take care of all contract management responsibilities. I loved the work."
Mitchell predicts USACE will continue to support operations in Iraq for another two to three years, with most of that work supporting FMS programs.
"The Iraq Area Office has been both flexible and innovative over this past year, as it evolved from contingency area office to a steady-state area office," said Col. Jon Christensen, Middle East District commander.
"As the situation in Iraq continues to stabilize, we want the Iraq Area Office to look and feel like any other area office under the Middle East District's purview in the CENTCOM (U.S. Central Command) footprint," Christensen said. "This past year the Iraq Area Office has worked miracles to ensure that we could continue delivering quality projects to our Iraqi customers even when faced with limited resources and tough constraints."