An engineer builds his skill in Afghanistan
GARDEYZ, Afghanistan — When Maj. Brad Domby first met up with special forces teams training Afghan soldiers in remote Gardeyz, they realized Domby was going to be the local engineer in this remote corner of Afghanistan.
Attached to a Provincial Reconstruction Team, Domby indeed went on to work with special forces teams, building barracks and an Afghan army recruitment center.
Later in his deployment, he ran into the secretive soldiers at a meeting with regular Army units and officials “and they were being standoffish, as those guys tend to be. But when they saw me, they said, ‘Hey, the engineer is here!’”
With civilian reconstruction projects increasing at the same time the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is entrenching, engineers are about the hottest commodity in Afghanistan, said Domby and others.
But he’s going home. Just who’ll take his place with the reconstruction team is anyone’s guess, he said. PRT officials say there probably won’t be anyone.
A reconstruction team without an engineer is a little like a medical clinic without a specialist. It won’t have the same capabilities, said Warrant Officer 4 Tim Mueller.
As part of its mission, the team will still help build schools and other government buildings on standard designs, bringing in engineers from the main U.S. base at Bagram for tough projects, Mueller said. Domby’s unique contribution was his ability to act as the PRT’s prime contractor, monitoring every phase of projects.
But there aren’t enough engineers in the Army, and the PRT itself is down to a single team from two teams on the previous rotation, Mueller said.
Oddly, U.S. commanders announced recently that reconstruction teams — created in late 2002 — would expand in an effort to provide security in southern and eastern regions where Taliban and al-Qaida attacks have increased. Expanding the teams will improve security and accelerate development, said Lt. Gen. David Barno in a Dec. 21 news conference. It was this effort to expand the authority of Afghanistan’s nascent central government that brought Domby here.
Last year, Domby was plant manager for a water filter manufacturer in Boyd, Texas, when he got a Western Union telegram from the Army notifying him he was on his way to Afghanistan. Domby figured he would do his time at Bagram Air Base, maybe on some general’s staff.
Instead, he ended up attached to the first PRT, working out of Firebase Gardeyz, a remote base 7,000 feet in the mountains near the border with Pakistan, and about 60 miles south of Kabul.
“When they told me I was going to be a field engineer, I jumped at the chance,” Domby said.
Since he arrived in Gardeyz on June 4, he has spent what he describes as a satisfying eight months working on 50 projects or proposals, doing everything from building schools and government buildings to working on his special forces projects. It’s been a radical departure from his day job. His first day at Firebase Gardeyz, someone exploded a mortar shell in a tree outside the base, injuring passing special forces soldiers. Since Feb. 1, improvised roadside bombs have started going off daily, aimed at U.N. representatives, aid workers and Afghan government officials.
In this volatile workplace, Domby used his skills with computer-aided design to bring a level of sophistication to projects. A school he designed at Dara, a few miles from Gardeyz, is bare-bones functional. But its modern symmetrical design and architectural flourishes next to a war-shattered village is meant to be a symbol to locals of what could be.
Domby said he takes great satisfaction in contributing to $2.5 million worth of public projects for people who need them desperately. But, he added, he’s also been there for the PRT, enforcing construction standards and quality control in a place where such concepts are alien.
At Gardeyz, he learned to write bidders’ packages and cost estimates.
Making local contractors live by contract terms? Well, that’s another story. Some Afghan contractors went beyond what was necessary, happy to be rebuilding their country, Domby said. Others didn’t, and he pretty much heard every excuse and con job.
For example, one contractor claimed a project was at the 50 percent mark, which entitled him to a partial payment. But when Domby inspected it, virtually nothing was done.
“He said, ‘Oh, 30 percent of my work is just getting any labor. It’s so hard to get labor here.’
“I said, ‘Nice try.’”
His favorite is the contractor who took 10 months to build a simple security wall that should have taken 30 days. Yet the contractor came and demanded immediate payment.
“I told him, ‘You were in no hurry to build it. Why should I be in any hurry to give you your money?’ ”
Despite all the headaches, Domby — a former combat engineer — found the work so satisfying that he’s thinking of coming back to active duty, just so he can return to Afghanistan.
“The SF guys told me, ‘You’ve got the best job out here,’ and I can’t disagree.”