A Female Civil Engineer: Around the World

Kristina and I met when I was stationed at Holloman Air Force Base in the Civil Engineer Squadron. We were only stationed together for a few months, but her impact lasted with me long after I left for my deployment. As a female officer with so much advice and being willing to spend time mentoring me. It left an impact. Through the magic of social media we are still connected today. I’m so excited to share her story. She deployed 5 different times during her Air Force Career and this doesn’t include the year she spent in Korea and time stationed in Germany.

Kristina has deployed 5 times through her military career as an Air Force Civil Engineer. She also served a year in Korea. She has so many stories to tell. Read part of her story here.

Name:

Kristina Selstrom

Rank during deployment: 

2Lt-Major

Branch of Service:

United States Air Force

Current rank/current job if you have left the military:

Retired—working on certifications to go back to work.  Volunteer in the community. Active member of Society of American Military Engineers (SAME)—currently Post VP for Programs

Where did you deploy to?

2000:  (4 mos/2d Lt) Eskan Village, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
2004: (4 mos/Capt)  Kirkuk Air Base (AB), Kirkuk, Iraq
2005:  (7.5 mos/Capt ) Manas AB, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
2007:   (7 mos/ Capt)  Victory Base Complex, Baghdad, Iraq
2009:  (7 mos/Major)   Camp Marmal, Mazer-e Sharif, Afghanistan

What was you or your team’s mission? 

Mission varied depending on deployment—but for all of them I was as an Air Force Civil Engineer (CE) doing a mission to identify, design, build and maintain facilities and infrastructure to support both a ground and/or air mission.

What was your job (general duties/daily tasks/as many details as possible)?

See above for ‘general description.’ Job and duties varied with rank and team structure.  My first three deployments were with standard USAF CE squadron constructs.

My first deployment, Saudi Arabia, Readiness Flight Commander

I oversaw emergency management for Eskan Village—which at the time was headquarters for Joint Task Force Southwest Asia enforcing the southern no fly zone in Iraq.  While I was there, we oversaw protection of the base and security for the Headquarters.  We were able to get first hand real world experience supporting our wing leadership when the USS Cole was bombed while in port. It was a crash course in emergency management.

My second deployment, Iraq, I was a project engineer

My primary projects were airfield and pavements construction/repairs at Kirkuk AB supporting F-16 operational missions.  This was an interesting place to be at the time (2nd rotation after the invasion).  We at one time had to have our gas masks with us at all times because of a credible mustard gas threat and we had just about daily rocket and gun fire attacks.

Being on the airfield was especially an interesting place to be. During some of these attacks you could tell who, of our Iraqi contractors, had been members of the military and who had not.  When we had a rocket attack on the airfield, the former military members would ‘take cover’, those that hadn’t served, would freak out a little bit. I also discovered, during one of the attacks, one of the workers had his tongue removed. Leading us to believe he had been tortured at some point in time. I enjoyed being able to work right alongside the Iraqi’s and get to know more about the culture. I also had many marriage proposals during this time.

One particular story, I remember worth telling is, on Easter Sunday.

We were working on the airfield. I had gone on out to do some inspecting on the joint seal removal project and after I was done doing my inspection, the Iraqi project manager asked if some of his people could take a few minutes break to pray.

I, said yes, but it had to be brief because of the operational schedule. We had time in the schedule (we worked in between take off/landings of F-16s) and the contract called for breaks.  I watched how both Muslims and Christians (Assyrians as I was told) prayed, separately but nearby to each other without issue. I just took what I was seeing in, trying to burn it to my memory.  After a few minutes, everyone went back to work. I felt very special to be an American at that point, knowing we had religious freedom.

My third deployment, Kyrgyzstan, Civil Engineer Liaison

I negotiated project approvals in accordance with lease terms (lots of trips off base), served on the US Department of State Country Team for basing negotiations and serviced as the officer in charge for the security escorts.

My fourth deployment, Iraq, Facilities Engineering Team

We supported (primarily) US Army operations in central Iraq.  I oversaw facility and infrastructure construction on specific forward operating bases on Victory Base Complex and also led small teams to do site surveys on US Army (primarily) forward operating bases located in or near Baghdad, Iraq.

My last deployment, Afghanistan, Deputy Squadron Commander

Leading an Expeditionary Prime Base Engineer Emergency Force (BEEF) Squadron.  We oversaw construction projects (be it via contract or ‘troop labor’) in Northern and West Afghanistan.  This was a great opportunity to grow and learn my leadership skills.

What cultural differences do you remember between the country you went to and the United States?

Since there were many countries I visited (in addition, I was stationed in Germany and Korea), I’m not sure how to answer this one. I grew up an Air Force brat as well, so, this is a hard one for me as I’ve seen and appreciated so many different cultures.  I guess, the obvious, language, food, and dress.

Not a great answer, but I didn’t really spend a lot of time focusing on ‘differences’ per se.  It’s second nature to me to ‘adapt’, and then I tend to forget the differences, until I get home—and ‘re-adapt’ 😉

Were there any particular foods that you ate while overseas that was different from the United States?

I’ve found pretty much everything I ate there also here in the US. In Riyadh, we even went to a Cheesecake Factory.  But, I tried to eat ‘local’ as often as possible.  Even in Afghanistan I found an Afghan bakery to get naan.

http://eepurl.com/bhKc3D

What was the hardest thing you faced with the cultural difference in the country you were deployed to?

Hmmm….. I guess because of the (Statue of Forces Agreement) SOAF in Saudi Arabia, women could not drive off base, go alone anywhere and had to wear a black Abaya.  It was interesting doing business there as you had to always ensure it was in a ‘family’ place (aka a place where women could go). The irony—as I am writing this, my apple watch news app just told me Saudi Arabia is going to let women drive…..

Do you remember being treated differently than your male counterparts either by the local people or other members on the team?

I’d be lying if I said no.  But, I tried to take the approach to working and respecting cultural norms with my male-counterparts and the local people. I tried to learn the customs and culture of the people where I was going before I’d get there to understand and not offend.  Mind you, I wasn’t bashful or submissive, but I worked within the cultural parameters to get the job done and earn their respect. When I needed to get a point across or be ‘deliberate’, I would look them in the eye.  Also, I didn’t try to ‘hard’ to get respect, per se or at the expense of myself or my team.

My rank was on my uniform and my position was part of the introduction.  I didn’t need to (or felt like I needed too) reassert this information. Another aspect, I felt worked in my favor, was that the men I worked with, for and that worked for me, ensured my counterparts new my place on the team (be it a player-or lead, subject matter expert etc).  Because of these things and other reasons, I suppose, I was able to get the job done and develop the necessary relationships to keep things moving forward construction wise.  I think also working with other engineers, who had women in their classes helped my situation greatly.

So, do I remember being treated differently, sure, but it was only temporary, most of the time.

When it wasn’t. I just got through it and didn’t compromise my ability to get the job done. I wasn’t going to defer my responsibilities. And I chose to not dwell on the negatives as I went about my work—the best I could.

What challenges did you face?

I am an extrovert (mostly) by nature, so the times I was ere I was separated from my team and stuck in a tent by myself. Mostly transient visiting tents, and if they were separated by officer, then almost always alone.  I found that I became really good at compartmentalizing, because I had too. I didn’t have a lot of folks to talk to in an empty tent.  Almost too good.

And, maybe the lack of pedicure places available.

I guess outside of those, there were all kinds of challenges of learning a new job, new place, new missions etc. But, those were ones I enjoyed—most of the time.

What is the one thing you remember most from your deployment?

There are many things I remember that would I love to share, from the tiki torches my team made from rip-its, magazines made into wicks in Afghanistan to the hikes in Krygyzstan to the paintings and other souvenirs I bought and back to my home. I have plenty of ‘war stories’ I’ve been sharing lately, but they are best told with an adult beverage or around a fire pit.

Is there a memory or story from your deployment you want to share?

One of my more recent stories, is on one of my longer deployments, upon my return, a friend of mine gave me a hug at the airport. It was then I realized I hadn’t had a ‘hug’ in months—or so it seemed. I kind of felt this ‘stress release’ with the hug. Like I could finally breathe.  It was so weird to have that very conscious feeling.  I make sure to give real hugs to people when I haven’t seen them in a while.

What question do you get when people find out you deployed?

What did you do? And then, did you find it hard as a woman or what was your favorite place?  I find both of those questions as hard to answer as when people ask me where I am from.

This is Day 19 of 31 Days of Deployment Stories. If you want to see the whole series click here. Yesterday I shared Just A Guy in Afghanistan. Tomorrow I will share Engineering In Honduras. Don’t miss a post. Join my email list here.

2 comments on “A Female Civil Engineer: Around the World

  1. Wow! Thank you so much for your service in all of those deployments! I loved reading your stories but this is my favorite line: “I make sure to give real hugs to people when I haven’t seen them in a while.” Amen… may we ALL remember to do this!

    • It is true. We should give hugs as often as we can. Thanks for reading. I’m so glad I was able to share Chris’s story.

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