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My military career led me to directly connect to international development. As such, I have been given some amazing opportunities. One of these being sharing my experience with The Engineering Career Coach. Leading up to the interview questions were sent back and forth. Since I write about my deployment experience often I wanted to share these questions and the link to the podcast because they are outside of the normal experiences I shared about. Enjoy!
What drew you towards a career path focused on engineering and infrastructure in the Air Force?
Growing up I always had a love for math and science. When I started the Reserve Officer Training Corps in college one of the senior leaders recommended I look into engineering instead of a math degree. I did a little research and fell in love with engineering and all it encompassed. Not only would I be able to use math, but I would be able to make a difference in my community with lasting impact of buildings, roads and other infrastructure.
What type of work have you performed over your career in international infrastructure development?
In 2010, I was part of a Provincial Reconstruction Team for Kapisa Province. The team was made up of a small engineering contingent (including two AF Civil Engineers). We were tasked with managing the engineering projects throughout the province of Kapisa. We did site visits on a regular basis to inspect the progress for each project. When we arrived in Afghanistan we inherited 14 vertical structures (schools, government buildings, hospitals), over 65 km of road construction and three bridge/flood containment projects. New rules limited the amount of projects each person could manage. This meant we already had more projects ongoing than was allowed. We focused on closing out projects and teaching sustainment to the Afghan people.
What has been your greatest success or most memorable experience in your work thus far?
I am most proud of the school we built for the children of Afghanistan, but wish we could have done more. Truthfully, we were not given enough tools to complete our mission and with limited expertise and knowledge on nation building we were not able to make as big as an impact as I had hoped while going through our training.
What engineering or project management skills have you had to rely on the most in your work?
The key to any engineering project is being flexible and being able to adapt to whatever comes. There are a number of different factors that may cause delays or changes that need to be made before a project can come to successful completion. I believe being flexible. Having the ability to adapt to whatever may come up. Those are important skills because things rarely go according to plan. Being flexible is an important part of any engineering project.
What was your most challenging infrastructure experience in Afghanistan?
Sustainment. Where we were in Afghanistan people were living in mud huts and did not understand the concepts of sustaining and maintaining the buildings being built. They believed because we were building concrete structures they would last forever and would require no upkeep. Buildings would quickly fall into disrepair since they were not properly maintained. And the quality of work to begin with was often not up to American standard. With limited ability to see projects under construction and no tools besides computers and pencils. We were not able to properly inspect projects.
Add to the fact that there was a huge disconnect between what we were building. And what the Afghan people could maintain. It led to having many issues that we were not equipped to deal with. Buildings would be left abandoned as they fell into disrepair. Requests for a new building would come flooding in. This left us feeling overwhelmed. As we were dealing with issues outside the typical realm of engineering.
What are three things you would tell someone contemplating a career in international development to consider before starting?
A quick fix is not going to fix the problem. I think we (the American military) came into a situation they were not prepared for and people did the best they could with what they were given. We were only in Afghanistan for nine months. Rebuilding nations takes time. A lot of time. If you read Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace – One School at a Time you start to understand what you think a village needs may be their priority number five while it is your number one. Building infrastructure and seeing tangible results will only be effective if you take the time to listen to the people and find out what they need and then start building or rebuilding the infrastructure that will change their society.
Are there any other thoughts you’d like to share?
Going to Afghanistan was life changing and I wish we could have done more, but I do not think the military was prepared for nation building and what started out as a good idea got messed up by people’s egos and goals to see tangible results too quickly. If you want to help people internationally you will have to realize it will take a lot of time and effort before you start building anything. In the end, the results of what you are doing will last long after you are gone. An engineer can come in and build a well, school or any other infrastructure for a village. But without education of the villagers the well will soon run dry, and the school will crumble and deteriorate. Lasting change can happen it just requires a lot more work than a quick fix.
Don’t forget to check out the podcast at The Engineering Career Coach