Community involvement: Reaching out for mutual understanding

Middle East District
Published Sept. 25, 2009

WINCHESTER, Va. -- Telling our story to audiences unfamiliar with the federal government or the Department of Defense is a key component to understanding.

“Outreach events are so very important to our organization that it is difficult to find a higher priority,” said Bill Ryals, Project Management’s Iraq Branch Chief. “Our work at the Transatlantic Programs Center is fast, exciting and quite complicated to the region of the world in which we work.

“Every time we get a chance to explain what we do, it helps our fellow Americans to understand how much our country does and how very rich and diverse our contribution to improvements all over the world really is and some of its positive and lasting effects,” Ryals continued. “At TAC, we are all positive and very enthusiastic about what we do. So by communicating this to others who do not have the opportunity to travel and touch people in far-off regions, they too can understand and appreciate the great country we live in.”

What’s a core engineer?

“What is an army core engineer anyway?”

This is one of many questions Bob Curd, P.E., received in letters from children while he was in Afghanistan earlier this year. He corresponded with students from two schools in two Virginia counties: His son Aaron’s third grade class at Gainesboro Elementary School in Frederick County and a mix of first through fifth grade students at Rosa Lee Carter Elementary School in Loudoun County taught by his wife’s cousin, Brenda Homer.

Curd was part of TAC’s Afghanistan Engineer District reachback team. While deployed, he was one of three structural engineers at Kabul Compound working with Middle Eastern engineers on the structural aspects of construction projects in Afghanistan.

“My job as an engineer of the Army Corps of Engineers is to show the Afghanistan engineers how buildings should be built,” he explained in reply. “I check their plans to make sure the buildings that they design will be safe and sometimes I go out and check buildings that have already been built. Other members of the team help those who are building roads, dams and airports.”

Questions from the students covered topics like details about his job, living conditions in Afghanistan, and what school he goes to. Several students commented that his family looked very kind in photographs they had seen and asked if he missed them.

“I love what I am doing here because we are helping the people here, but I do miss my family,” he told them. Phone calls and emails helped the Curds stay in touch during the separation.

“Sometimes I would call from work in the afternoon and wake up my son Aaron and his mother Julie. On other days, I might call and tell them good night as soon as I got up in the morning,” he said, explaining the 8½-hour time difference between Afghanistan and Virginia to the students.

Another child wrote, “I hope you have the best time at Afghanistan. I would like to meet you one day Mr. Curd.” And shortly after he returned to the States, Curd tried to make that happen for both schools, but his son’s school year ended before plans could be made.

The Loudoun County’s school year went further into June and Curd, along with his wife and son, visited before the end of the year. He and Aaron talked to the students who had written letters and answered many of their questions.

What’s the tallest building in the world?

In early June, TAC supported a career day event at a local middle school with a four-person team, representing different disciplines at varying stages of a career: Ryals and Caryl Hickel, project managers with 63 years combined professional experience; Tricia Torok, a 2005 Marquette University graduate who will finish her federal internship in August; and Ryan Cunningham, a rising senior majoring in civil engineering at the University of Virginia on his first federal summer internship.

The team presented slides and discussion about engineering with each member assigned a specific topic. They followed up with an energetic question-and-answer session with the students, stressing creative thought and teamwork in answers. This was repeated for three separate groups of 6th grade students.

“Outreach programs like this are especially vital to younger kids in order to get them interested in what we do at an early age,” said Cunningham. “The trip was a lot of fun and the enthusiasm of the kids made it even more special. I felt like they really enjoyed what we had to share with them.”

“We need to keep recruiting engineers and sparking that interest starts long before college,” said Ryals. “This career day event was very well organized by James Wood Middle School teachers and administrators. It provided an important forum for middle school students to meet real engineers from their community.”

“This was a great opportunity to expose the students to engineering and explain what we as engineers do,” said Torok. “They really seemed interested, and I hope some of them will consider a career in engineering. It’s never too early to start recruiting.”

“These middle school students were well prepared by their teachers, asking questions about the materials that were brought in for them to handle and the presentation by the Corps’ engineers,” Ryals said. “The engineer part of career day featured many interactive questions about buildings around the world that many students were familiar with. One student even knew that the tallest building in the world is currently Taipei 101, at 1,671 feet with 101 floors in Taipei, China. And he also knew that the tallest building under construction is the Burj Dubai with 141 floors at 2,684 feet in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

“The students today are so very bright,” Ryals continued. “It’s impressive to get a chance to talk and interact with them. Their teachers and parents have so much more involvement with their learning and growth today as compared to our generation. Their development at such a young age is incredible.”

Why does it matter?

The Army’s policy is to support as many appropriate events as possible, without adversely affecting the mission. One of the best methods to accomplish this at TAC is for team members to take part in external, non-federal events and interact directly with the local community. TAC has traditionally provided volunteer judges for math and science fairs at local schools, assisted local civic group luncheons with keynote speakers, and sent team members to career events to discuss engineering, architecture, and other professional disciplines.