Service has new meaning for civilians sent to Iraq
June 21, 2005
YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — U.S. Army Corps of Engineers employee Ed Flint thought his last deployment to Iraq as a civilian from August to December 2003 would be just that: his last.
But he said during a recent job fair, when he was one of four Corps employees invited to talk to servicemembers leaving the military about future job opportunities, he started thinking about another deployment.
“I pretty much talked myself into it,” he said, laughing at what a convincing job he did describing what it’s like to play a role in the global war on terror, a role in history.
And Marsha Smith knew her recent trip to Iraq would be her last with the Corps. Smith, 58, retires July 1 after 31 years. She returned in March from a five-month deployment to Baghdad.
Both Smith and Flint, 57, volunteered to deploy. As of last week, 21 employees with the Far East District, headquartered in Seoul, had deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. They were able to tell troops about life with the Army Corps of Engineers and what it’s like to deploy as a civilian. Both said they received positive feedback and answered a lot of questions. One was, “Why would you volunteer to deploy someplace as dangerous as Iraq?”
Flint said his motivation was the adventure.
“I’m not the kind to sit at a desk eight hours a day,” he said. “I’m always challenging myself professionally and physically.” Flint, in the Marine Corps from 1966 to 1970, served in Vietnam as an aviation ordnanceman.
As a civil engineer, he spent most of his recent tour inspecting damaged buildings to decide if they were structurally sound enough to be repaired. He said it was amazing to climb through the buildings he had seen on the news and to spend a lot of time in one of Saddam Hussein’s bunker complexes.
He said while his family supported his decision to deploy, that didn’t stop some worrying.
“It’s one of those ‘night before I left, tell me why you volunteered again,’” conversations, he said.
He said things “started to get hairy about halfway through” his trip. One co-worker was hit by the blast from an improvised explosive device and lost his eyesight.
“I never felt in danger,” he said. “I always felt in control of the situation.” He said armed troops accompanied them any time they traveled outside Baghdad’s Green Zone.
Smith said while the thought of danger always was “in the back of your mind, it really wasn’t an issue.” She learned the difference between incoming and outgoing fire, spent some nights in the bunkers during mortar and rocket attacks and learned to love the sound of helicopters. When the shells started falling on the bases, the helicopter pilots would go out to hunt the insurgents, she said, and that meant a quite night of sleep.
Smith grew up as a military brat, joined the Army Corps of Engineers in 1971 and now works as a civil engineering technician. She spent her tour working on a database system for civilian contractors, which meant she had the opportunity to meet many Iraqis.
She’d volunteered to work a major project in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s and deployed to Kuwait after Desert Storm in the early 1990s, she said, so she felt prepared for Iraq.
The deployment helped speed the last year before her retirement and “the money was good,” she said.
But mainly, she said, she volunteered for the “opportunity to serve.”
She said being part of the rebuilding efforts in Iraq was satisfying because normally, “you could work on one project for 20 years and not see its completion.”
But in Iraq, the work is fast-paced and constantly changing.
“It’s interesting to watch the Iraqi people standing up on their own two feet,” she said.
She told the troops who thought about joining the Corps of Engineers that a deployment is a good way to earn respect in the organization.
“We’re a small organization; we’re a family,” she said. “You go over there, do the very best work you can do — you present yourself to people.”
Flint told the troops that “you have to want to go to Iraq.”
“No one should be talked into or coerced into going,” he said. “You either like that kind of stuff or you don’t.”