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Civilians lend soldiers a helping hand

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on July 19, 2009.

Bill Neimes' job might sound fairly typical for a government engineer: Long days filled with bid conferences, site inspections and contractor meetings.

Most engineers, though, don't have to deal with explosive devices going off near their vehicles while they're on their way to look at a bridge.

"Every time I go out, I say a prayer, " said Neimes, a civilian who's working in Afghanistan. "Someone could blow my head off. You can't let it scare you too much."

Neimes isn't the only local specialist to trade in civilian clothing for a uniform.

While a range of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, working alongside them are a sprinkling of civilian volunteers from Navy commands handling important tasks that require other-than-military skills.

Among those civilians are a handful of technicians who work for the Naval Facilities Engineering Command Southeast based at Jacksonville Naval Air Station who volunteered to deploy as Individual Augmentees. IAs, as they're known, are typically sailors sent to work with the ground services. More than 73,000 IAs have deployed, although the Navy does not break out how many of them are civilians.

It's not easy work. The men and women live in the same rough conditions as their military counterparts and may have to deal with the same danger, at least some of the time, whether in war zones or not.

"There were places I would not have gone alone, " mused Tread Kissam, a geologist who spent months in Africa helping the military's new Africa Command build wells for villagers.

But the rewards are worth it, said those who have gone through the experience.

"It's fascinating and challenging, " said Richard Barfield, an attorney who's in Iraq handling legal work needed prior to the troops pulling out. "It's a unique opportunity."

The biggest enticement -- even more than the hardship pay they receive -- is the chance to use their specialized skills in a challenging environment.

Digging wells in Africa, for example, takes more than access to the proper equipment and security forces to protect it.

"The geology there is arguably the most complicated geology in the world, " said Kissam, who had to work around things like hidden salt deposits as he searched for clean water in places such as Ethiopia and Uganda.

Kissam typically manages remediation projects for the Navy, but this assignment let him use his skills in a new way.

"The people were very grateful, " he said, reflecting on projects like digging a well for a village for which the program had earlier built a school.

In Afghanistan, Neimes said he's had similar responses.

"Most of the kids, especially, give us thumbs up, " he said. "They like to see the convoy drive by. They're very happy we're here."

LEARNING ABOUT THE CULTURE

Working out of a base about 60 miles from Kabul, Afghanistan, Neimes gets to spend a lot of time with Afghanis, from the translators who work in his office to the contractors who do the actual construction.

Learning about Afghanistan is one of the reasons Neimes, who is trying to learn some Pashtun, said he volunteered. Perhaps more importantly is the chance "to be there, hands on, where the rubber meets the road."

Such motivations seem typical for the civilian volunteers, who for the most part left wives and children behind as they deployed.

"There's a lot of really good things taking place over there that's helping a lot of people, " said Leo Ludovici, a contracts specialist who will be deploying to Iraq next month.

Having spent years as a Seabee, Ludovici also wants to show his support to the active-duty troops on the ground.

"I want to be there with the boys doing what I can do, " he said.

As for Barfield, the attorney now stationed in Baghdad, part of his job in helping shut down the military presence in Iraq requires him to work with the country's fledgling Environmental Ministry. He's helping the country put its environmental regulations into place, drawing on his background as an environmental lawyer even as most of his job is focused on contracts.

"It's just an incredible learning experience, " he said.

It comes with a sense of accomplishment, even if the need for their skills remains after the three, six or 12 months they spend on the ground is over. It's a job, they said, they'd be happy to volunteer for again.

"There's a lot of work to be done, " Kissam said. "If I was asked to go again, I'd go without hesitation."



About

This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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