As the door closed behind her, Michele Rebmann turned to take one more look at her house before she left. Holding her suitcase tightly in her hand and taking a deep breath, she walked to a waiting taxi. It would be the last time she would see her home for at least the next six months.
At that moment, months of planning were put into action, and Rebmann, a program analyst with the USACE Buffalo District was on her way to Afghanistan.
When the United States enters into war it is expected that military service members will deploy to foreign countries in support of the Overseas Contingency Operations mission. However, alongside the service members is a dedicated group of DOD civilians who deploy to support the military. These USACE DOD civilians encounter the same hardships as their military counterparts: leaving family and friends; enduring the mental and physical strains of combat; living life overseas; and encountering personal hardships.
The concept of civilians specialized in engineering techniques is not a new one. Ever the modern Corps of Engineers was established in 1802, civilians have been used to support the military’s construction efforts both in war and peace.
Before deploying, all USACE DOD civilians must spend a week in Winchester, Virginia, to complete mandatory training in areas ranging from security, information technology, situational awareness and medical preparedness. They are issued civilian uniforms, helmets, safety glasses and boots--all the things soldiers are issued to keep them safe while in combat.
After a long flight from Virginia, the civilians arrive in Afghanistan, one of many countries in which they support the OCO mission. They are assigned a converted shipping container to live in, which they share with one other roommate. A four-unit bathroom is shared among 10 civilians. The rooms come fully equipped with all the amenities of home, such as internet access, satellite TV, phone lines and furniture.
“I was a little worried about the living conditions,” said Rebmann. “I am usually someone who likes to have things a certain way, but over time my roommates became more like an extension of my family.”
Once settled, the civilians get down to work. They assist the military with engineering and related skillsets such as project management, structural analysis and construction site safety. They are similar to the military Special Forces but for engineering practices instead of combat.
“It takes years of school, training and experience to obtain the level of knowledge you need to be proficient in structural engineering,” said Adam W. Hamm, a civil/structural engineer with the USACE Buffalo District who deployed to Iraq. “The military was still ultimately in charge of all the engineering projects. I just provided them with in-depth knowledge and information they needed to ensure their mission was successful.”
Working was only a part of life overseas. Downtime is spent to relive stress and unwind after working a 12-hour day. A lot of time is spent working out, online shopping, mailing back items purchased from local Afghan bazaars, and socializing.
“The highlight of the deployment was when a Marine staff sergeant asked me to escort him to the Marine Ball,” said Rebmann, “It was awesome!”
Deploying is not only physically challenging but also mentally challenging.
“The work that you are doing is very rewarding, but whenever you are overseas, you cannot help but wonder what is going on back home,” said Hamm. “Once you get home you learn about all the things you have missed and how hard living without you was.”
Overseas deployments touch the lives of everyone, not just the men and women in uniform. It takes a large force of USACE DOD civilians to stand up and deploy with the service members so that the military is effective in accomplishing its assigned missions. It’s a good bet that whenever and wherever our military deploys, a force of dedicated DOD civilians will not be far behind.