Chuck Hadley loves the water. He grew up near the bay area in Pinole, Calif., and can gauge the day’s weather by watching the morning fog on the bay from his U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, San Francisco District office.
His normal Corps duties take him up and down California’s scenic coasts, overseeing harbor and bay dredging…life on the water. Now he’s living7,600 feet above sea level at Forward Operating Base Lightning, in Afghanistan, more than 700 miles from the nearest ocean.
Hadley is supporting the Corps’ Operation Enduring Freedom mission as a construction representative for the Transatlantic Afghanistan District’s Gardez Resident Office, where receiving mail is a huge morale booster since it only comes once a week if you’re lucky.
“The pace is tough here,” Hadley said. “Back home I am usually on one or two projects at a time. I would have to evaluate and process maybe 15 contractor submittals for a whole project. Here I am working more than 10 projects. I can have 30 submittals a day.”
The resident office is located near Gardez, in Paktika Province, about 75 miles south of Kabul and a little shorter distance west of the Pakistani border. The office currently oversees 40 construction projects located from the Pakistan border up into the Hindu Kush mountain range and spread over five provinces, Paktika, Paktya, Khost, Logar, and Ghazni. There were three Corps offices in this region a year ago, but just as coalition forces are drawing down and consolidating, so is the Corps.
In order to get to the sites, Hadley has to be in full “battle rattle”—body armor, helmet, medical kit, combat boots and other gear. In addition, he carries equipment needed for construction project inspections: note pad, tape measure, camera and other miscellaneous equipment he needs. He can’t go by himself as he can back home in his district. A security team guards Hadley and others with him. They also control who is allowed to approach to discuss the project, check buildings and rooms before he enters and manages the movement around a site.
“At first, it seemed a bit crazy,” he said. “You don’t open doors yourself. You don’t just walk into a room if you want to inspect an electrical panel. You wait for the security team to clear the room, ensuring it is safe to enter. Everywhere I go my security team is right there, taking the steps before and on my heals to make sure I am fully protected in front, behind and both sides. It kind of makes you feel as protected as the President would be, even though we’re just showing up at a construction job site performing inspections.”
“It’s still Afghanistan, a war zone. There is danger. My heart still beats fast every day when we go on missions outside the wire driving through the cities on the way to a job site,” he explained.
“It feels like it becomes routine, but you have to be still be alert. We work with our security team. They understand what we are looking for on the site and who we have to talk to. We are also an extra set of eyes for them. If we see something that shouldn’t be, we tell them. We’re all one team.”
Before joining the Corps, he worked as a concrete laborer, went to night school for computers and construction management, then became a project coordinator. Hadley has been in Afghanistan for 13 months and starting his second tour.
“At first I came for the adventure and chance to make and save money. Now I’m here for the experience and working with the locals,” he said.
Hadley oversees construction of power plants, waste water treatment plants, hospitals barracks, latrines and administrative buildings for Afghan National Security Forces.
“A year here is like five or six years of experience back home,” Hadley said. “You can’t specialize. You have to cover the entire site. I have had to learn about pumps, gears, electrical systems, fuel tanks, generators, doors, windows, heating and cooling systems, everything involved in construction from the ground up. I have to be expert enough to coach contractors how to interpret specifications and drawings, find the right product and install them properly.”
It’s a different culture Hadley said. He likes showing the locals how to use products or techniques they haven’t seen, like dry wall interiors with steel studs instead of mud walls, or how to do large concrete pours.
“They know how to do some things great, like masonry,” he said. “I’m helping add to what they know.”
Building local technical expertise, or capacity, in engineering, construction and maintenance is a key mission for the Transatlantic Afghanistan District.
“We employ and build skilled human capital in many ways,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Taylor Thomas, officer in charge of the Kabul Area Office. “The Corps of Engineers operates an Afghan Quality Assurance Representative Program that employs locals, many with engineering degrees, and varying skill levels electrical, mechanical and civil engineering specialties. These QARs are our eyes on the ground at most of our project sites. Ultimately, building these skill sets will assist them to take on their own engineering and project management endeavors in the future.”
Making these programs work takes the expertise of people like Hadley.
“My biggest challenge is working with the contractors’ quality control on submittals, where they send in paperwork documenting what they are purchasing meets the specifications and drawings. It’s hard to find most of the items locally,” Hadley said. “We are teaching them years worth of construction techniques and the local markets are starting to support these needs.”
Worker safety is another challenge.
“They just don’t get it,” Hadley said. “I think they understand they could get hurt, or one of their workers could get hurt. I try to explain to them that their safety comes first, but I don’t think they ever had someone watch out for a workers safety as we do in the Corps.”
On his rare down time Hadley watches movies, roots for his San Francisco teams and takes walks around the small base.
“One of my most unforgettable days was my last birthday. The guys I work with went all out,” he said. “There was no birthday cake or balloons, but the guys talked the dining facility out of some ribs for us to BBQ. Other guys built a ‘birthday cake’ using energy bars. It’s just a special day when your co-workers go above and beyond, 9,000 miles from home, so you’re feeling like you’re back with your friends and family.”
Hadley said it’s not easy being here, but recommends the experience to anyone to go overseas to do this kind of work, emphasizing there is nothing like it back home. Through it all, he focuses on how his work helps the Afghans by giving them bases to provide their own security. Not only does this let the Afghans take over from coalition forces, it gives them a strong sense of pride to be able to do for themselves.
“The Afghans are really appreciative of what we do,” Hadley said. “They are sincere. They say ‘thank you’, even if that’s all the English they know.”
For Hadley, being this far from his harbors and morning fog is worth it.