News: Soldiers put the 'Army' in US Army Corps of Engineers
Story by Karla Marshall
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan – At U.S. Army Corps of Engineers districts around the world, civilians make up more than 90 percent of the 39,000-strong workforce. Each of the 43 districts have a military officer commander and deputy commander. Some have senior enlisted advisors and officers in charge of offices. Others have officer project managers.
But, only one district has an MRAP (mine-resistant, ambush–protected all-terrain vehicle) team of soldiers. That district is in Afghanistan and is headquartered at Kandahar Airfield.
“We have a unique mission here and we need soldiers to get it done,” said Lt. Col. Stephen Bales Afghanistan Engineer District-South’s deputy district commander. “Most of our construction sites are in dangerous areas and getting to them safely is our number one priority.”
Bales, a native of London, Ky. and an engineer officer, said the soldiers who man the MRAP turrets are trained not only to shoot the mounted .50-caliber machine guns, but also to drive the MRAPs and operate the sophisticated equipment inside.
“The soldiers are absolutely critical to the success of the Corps of Engineers mission; they’ve got to always be engaged and aware. They must train to maintain competencies and that’s where Sgt. First Class Richard Dauphin comes in,” explained Bales.
“Generally speaking, the soldiers who deploy to the district are reservists and some have a military police or infantry background,” said Dauphin who deployed from Hawaii. “But to do the job, neither of those is a requirement. We teach the soldiers the specific skills they need; they already have the soldiering background and fundamentals.”
What makes this mission unique is that MRAP soldiers provide security for unarmed civilians. “This one element requires a new kind of Soldiering from most of these guys,” Dauphin, the non-commissioned officer in charge of the MRAP mission, explained. “They’ve never worked with the Corps of Engineers and consequently they have to acquire some new skills and vocabulary.”
Neither of which is difficult, but part of the learning process said Dauphin. “Acronyms unique to the Corps of Engineers and the Afghanistan Engineer District-South take some getting used to, but after a short time the soldiers figure them out.”
Training, on the other hand, is an on-going requirement and for Spc. Kyle Johnson, it is just one of the benefits of deploying with the Corps of Engineers.
“I saw deploying with the Corps of Engineers as a good job opportunity,” said Johnson, an MRAP team soldier and native of Lawrenceville, Ga. “As an infantry Soldier, my previous deployments were with guys just like me. Now I work and live with a variety of people. There are engineers, people who are college professors, electricians, construction experts; I have learned a lot from them and they inspired me to continue my college education.”
Even on his team Johnson says the depth of knowledge of his co-workers and the leadership of his superiors benefits his career. “The older, more experienced soldiers and the civilian contractors on the team taught me better ways to do things and one team leaders especially showed me how to handle myself during stressful times - he was always calm under pressure.”
Staying calm in the face of danger or when performing a mission is the hallmark of the South District’s MRAP team said Lt. Col. John Sullivan, the district’s chief of operations and the MRAP officer in charge. The Corps of Engineers conducts ground movements in coordination with battle space owners, continued Sullivan, a Chicago area native and the district’s chief of operations. “Ground movement” is the term used to describe any MRAP or up-armored vehicle travel outside of a secure coalition military post. “My operations team works with the district’s intelligence office to outline missions and assess the danger of traveling to a particular construction site.”
When there is concern, the district commander reviews the information and makes a risk determination. “Building in Afghanistan is risky and dangerous,” explained Sullivan. “There are a number of things that can go wrong but the one thing the MRAP team does do is reduce the risks.”
“Lt. Col. Sullivan and the MRAP soldiers make it possible for the USACE civilians to get to project sites,” said Bales. “Building Afghanistan’s infrastructure and facilities for Afghanistan’s security forces is a big undertaking—one that the Corps of Engineers is uniquely qualified to do. Our mission is to enable the government of Afghanistan to become independent and with each facility we construct; each road we pave, the Corps of Engineers helps Afghans get one step closer to that goal.”