Dirty Work

For civilian engineers involved in Iraqi reconstruction, courage and technical skill are useful, but flexibility, a sense of humor and bags of cash are even better.

Franz Froelicher, a chemist and geologist with the Army Corps of Engineers, went to Iraq last spring with a $22,000 portable laboratory and elaborate plans to establish an environmental monitoring program following the defeat of Saddam Hussein. Like the Bush administration's plans for post-war Iraq, however, Froelicher's plans didn't turn out quite the way he had expected. Instead, the chemistry lab stayed crated and Froelicher went to work solving a more immediate problem for the occupation authorities-removing the hulks of about 10,000 burned-out military vehicles abandoned by Iraqi defense forces, and tons of rotting garbage clogging the streets of Baghdad.

"I actually volunteered for the job, although I really didn't expect I would get it," he says. Froelicher, who laughs heartily and frequently and looks something like Santa Claus, became known around Baghdad as Dr. Garbage. An eternal optimist, he had yellow baseball caps made for the garbage workers that said "For a cleaner, more beautiful Baghdad." He estimates there were 1.8 million cubic meters of garbage in the streets of the city before the war began-a situation that deteriorated considerably during the war and its immediate aftermath.

Froelicher and dozens of other scientists and engineers from the Army Corps of Engineers went to Iraq this spring to help rebuild the country and advise Defense and State Department leaders on construction issues. Many were sent to monitor contract workers from Bechtel, the company hired by the U.S. Agency for International Development to rebuild much of Iraq's damaged and badly neglected infrastructure. But the Bechtel contract was delayed, and Iraq's infrastructure-dams, water and oil pipelines, the electricity grid, sewage facilities, communications networks, hospitals and other building blocks of modern civilization-was much worse than the Pentagon had anticipated. The economic sanctions imposed on Iraq, widespread looting following the war and the tenuous state of security had all taken their toll, and many of the scientists and engineers sent by the Corps were pressed into performing work they hadn't counted on.

Froelicher kept an open mind as things evolved, and embraced what he believed was an opportunity to do some good. He had worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on post-hurricane cleanup operations in the Caribbean and Central America, so he thought he had some idea of what lay ahead. But it was obvious from the moment he entered Iraq that the Baghdad cleanup operation was going to be an altogether new experience. "For one thing, nobody was shooting at us in the Caribbean," he says.

WINGING IT

Working with Jenny Seymore, an interpreter with the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance assigned to help him, Froelicher soon began negotiating for trash removal with representatives of about 20 Iraqi trucking companies gathered together by the Baghdad city council. After lengthy and lively discussions among the businessmen, they finally agreed to accept a flat rate for a cut of the trash hauling business: $1.25 per cubic meter. The Iraqis initially had demanded $7 per cubic meter, an outrageous amount of money relative to the local economy. Froelicher had wanted to pay $1 per cubic meter. It wasn't until Froelicher started to walk out of the negotiations that he was able to reach a deal. Given the difference between the Iraqis' initial demands and his final offer, he was surprised when the deal was sealed with hugs and kisses all around. Since one of the coalition's goals was to pump as much money into the Iraqi economy as quickly as possible, anybody who wanted to work at the established rate could work.

A couple of days later, Froelicher and Seymore discovered that the truck drivers and landfill operators were cheating. The stamped chits they presented for payment were supposed to document the amount of trash they had hauled away, but the papers were obviously faked. It would have been physically impossible to haul the amount of garbage claimed by the drivers and certified by the landfill operators, "even if their trucks had had wings," says Froelicher.

So Froelicher called their bluff. Since he and Seymore couldn't possibly follow the trash collectors around to prove what they knew to be true, he invented a story of his own in an effort to debunk the falsified papers. He told the drivers that aerial photography showed their records were inaccurate. He then hired two teams of Iraqi women to go out and photograph the streets the collectors claimed to have cleaned. "We hired women because we wanted to give them opportunities," he said. The tactics worked; Froelicher fired the dishonest landfill operators and hired new ones, many of whom were university professors eager to earn the $10 a day that the job paid. Faced with photographic evidence of their failures, the trash collectors started presenting more accurate paperwork, and the streets of Baghdad started to show improvement.

"When we didn't know what to do we winged it," Froelicher says. He is philosophical about the cheating: "You have to understand the game." Cheating doesn't have the same negative connotations everywhere that it has in Western cultures, he says. At the same time, the cheaters expected to be caught. "They won't respect you otherwise," he says. "

The most frustrating aspect of the job was trying to move around the city. Froelicher was supposed to travel with a military escort, which was not only inconvenient and limiting, but seemed dangerous. "I didn't like being in a military convoy. It was like saying 'shoot me,' " he says. "Sometimes, we could travel incognito. That was much better."

On Mondays, payday for the trash collectors, soldiers armed with M-16 machine guns would haul a footlocker full of cash to Froelicher's office and stand guard while he and Seymore counted out hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash payments, which Iraqis on the city council would in turn distribute to the trash collectors. Froelicher and Seymore handled so much money their fingers turned black from the ink.

He returned home in July after nearly four months in Iraq, but his heart remains in Baghdad, he says: "My wife says I still haven't left." He hopes to return. Despite the scorching heat, ongoing security problems and living conditions that were at times filthy, he greatly admired the Iraqis he met and he wants to continue to assist the rebuilding efforts. "I really loved it there," he says. "I really am very optimistic. We have a lot of work to do-a lot of work-but I'm optimistic."

CASH AND CARRY

While Froelicher was tackling garbage in Baghdad, Richard Heine was trying to make sense of the decrepit water and sewer systems across Iraq. A 1994 graduate of West Point, Heine had expected to make a career out of the Army, but in 1999, Army doctors determined that knee injuries rendered him unfit for deployment and he was given a medical discharge. So Heine put his engineering skills to work as a civilian in the Army Corps of Engineers, where his knees are apparently no impediment to deployments.

As the senior adviser to coalition forces for water and sewer issues following the war, Heine was basically responsible for doing whatever was necessary to get taps running and toilets flushing again. And he was pretty much on his own. "Everyone else was working on the electricity," he says. Before going into Iraq, the information he had from intelligence sources regarding the location of the water and sewer infrastructure was sketchy. What he discovered when he arrived was daunting. Leaks and illegal taps were siphoning off as much as 60 percent of the water from the production system. The sewage system was worse. The entire country had only nine treatment plants for 25 million people-only 60 percent of Baghdad had sewage treatment, he says. Elsewhere in Iraq, as little as 7 percent of the population had sewage treatment. "Ninety-five percent of the problems were due to lack of maintenance over the last 15 to 20 years," Heine says. Virtually every piece of equipment had been jury-rigged to make it work as parts broke and replacements were no longer available. Technically, the Iraqi engineers were very good, he says. They knew how their systems worked, or were supposed to work, but they had no access to parts or modern equipment.

Installing modern water and sewer infrastructure that can support the entire country will take years. In the meantime, Heine needed to get what was there working as well as possible. "There were a lot of roadblocks," he says. Moving around the country was complicated by the deteriorating security situation, and many of the parts he needed to make repairs simply did not exist. They had to be built. There were personal challenges as well. Heine doesn't speak Arabic beyond a few words, and while many of the Iraqis he worked with spoke English, communication could still be difficult. He also went four weeks without a shower, sleeping for a time at a Baghdad power plant because it was the best location for remaining in contact with Iraqi engineers and workers.

The biggest problem was money. While he was authorized to spend whatever was necessary, checks and credit cards were almost useless. To pay the Iraqi contractors he hired and the vendors he needed for parts, Heine carried cash. Lots of it. Two days a week he traveled with a laundry bag stuffed with anywhere from a few hundred thousand dollars to a million dollars. "The whole scenario was really surreal in a lot of ways. You're over there trying to reconstruct a country that has no basic services."

HIGH EXPECTATIONS

War produces many surreal experiences. Tommy Hill had the peculiar task of working as a property assessor for the U.S. military in Iraq. It's U.S. government policy to pay private land owners for the use of their land or facilities in peacetime. When hostilities ceased in Iraq-or at least ceased from a policy standpoint-Hill set about determining the value of any private property U.S. forces were occupying, and then paying a fair-market price for the use of the land. "It was difficult to determine the value in many cases," he says. "When you have a military conflict, it tends to inflate the market."

Because so many public records were destroyed in post-war looting, Hill often had to rely on paperwork presented by the property owners. He was aided by an interpreter, Amy Haddad, a Palestinian who grew up in Egypt and has worked as a Defense Department employee at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico for the last 20 years. Haddad was one of many federal interpreters who went to Iraq and served wherever they were needed. "She was just great. She understood the Iraqis and she understood the U.S. military. She translated all the leases and interpreted the legal terms," Hill says.

Like other Americans in Iraq, Hill was struck by both the poverty of many Iraqis, and by their support for the Americans, despite their present hardship, much of which is a direct result of the war. One Iraqi engineer he worked with didn't have power or water in his home, and spent 20 percent of his daily salary just to buy bottled water for his family. "Many people were very supportive of the coalition, but a few were angry. They had very high expectations. Too high," Hill says.

Robert Callahan, a Corps employee who served as an engineering liaison to the Baghdad mayor's office, says his expectations were too high, as well, at least as far as personal comfort went. Like many of the U.S. forces in Iraq, Callahan was housed in one of Saddam Hussein's Baghdad palaces. There was no air conditioning-the windows had all been blown out-and it was filthy. Temperatures were routinely well over 100 degrees Farhenheit.

"Our problems were minimal compared to the Iraqis'," he adds. "The biggest single problem was security. It's almost as though you need to secure everything. It seemed like there was nothing beyond the reach of looters and saboteurs."

He was very impressed with the Iraqis he worked with. At first, he was taken aback by the affection men show one another in Arab culture, but then he got used to it. He describes one of his Iraqi colleagues, Mohammed Ritta, as "the most wonderful guy in the world. Every time he would see me he would say 'I love you Rob.'" They shared stories about their children and talked about the sadness they would feel when their children moved away from home to be on their own. "The feeling comes to me almost daily that I've abandoned them," says Callahan. "There's so much that needs to be done. It's going to take a long time."

GUNFIRE AND OTHER HAZARDS

Security, or the lack of it, created problems for almost everyone. Brinda Jackson, an architect with the Corps, was attached to the 4th Infantry Division as it moved north through Iraq in late April. Her job was to track the status of various critical infrastructure needs, such as water treatment facilities, and prioritize funding for those needs. When the five-ton truck she was traveling in broke down while making its way from Kuwait to Baghdad, she wondered if she would ever get a chance to do her job. The convoy she was traveling in made arrangements for someone to pick up Jackson and her driver, but then moved on without them. Jackson and her driver spent a sleepless night in the desert. The unit that was supposed to rescue them never showed up. With no radio in the truck, she did the only thing she could think of. She started hitchhiking. Eventually, another military convoy came along and was able to tow the truck to a staging area outside Baghdad. "I was determined I wasn't going to be the next news story in Iraq," she says.

Traveling was one of the most difficult and dangerous aspects of working in Iraq. The absence of any street signs made getting lost a virtual certainty, unless you had an Iraqi accompanying you. Getting lost, especially as disenfranchised Baathists sought easy targets in their guerrilla war against occupation forces, was certainly something to avoid.

For Tom Whiteside, a Corps architect assigned to work with the Iraqi ministry of housing and construction, the support provided by U.S. military troops was essential. "I have enormous respect for the soldiers there. They lived in very poor conditions, yet I never saw a soldier that wasn't positive about what he was doing and what was going on. I relied on those guys every day when we went out in convoys."

Not all the dangers were human. Randy Morley worked as a safety officer, keeping track of various diseases and pests, and training other Corps employees to cope with them. Besides keeping an eye out for malaria and various respiratory and digestive track ailments, he was particularly wary of camel spiders: They are big (as large as four inches across), hairy, and very fast. Because camel spiders seek shade, they will chase anything that casts a shadow. In the four months he spent in the Middle East, he says he never actually saw one. He doesn't seem disappointed.

Some of the hazards were cultural. The Iraqi penchant for firing weapons in celebration was one of them. The night U.S. forces killed Saddam Hussein's sons Uday and Qusay, David Schmidt, the operations director for an engineering team, watched the festivities from the 14th floor of the Al-Rashid Hotel. The sky was filled with tracer fire, reminding him of Fourth of July fireworks celebrations at home, albeit more dangerous; stray bullets killed several Iraqis that night.

Still, Schmidt is hopeful about Iraq. "I don't think we were prepared for the magnitude of the problems there. But . . . I can't say enough about the people there. They're doing wonderful work under very difficult circumstances."

VERSAILLES ON THE TIGRIS

As a Corps electrical engineer assigned to a dam safety inspection team, Elizabeth Hall saw more of Iraq than many people. She logged nearly 4,000 miles in the course of conducting inspections at 21 dams and water projects, working closely with Iraqi engineers throughout the country. A blue-eyed blonde, she was initially concerned she might not be taken seriously. "It wasn't a problem at all. I never once felt dismissed, patronized or ignored," she says. "The Iraqis were always the most gracious hosts. They were apologetic that so many things had been looted. Most of the documentation, the engineering blueprints, they were gone. Once, they had only one set of drawings for a particular project-you can imagine how precious that would be-and they allowed us to take it to try and make copies. They wanted to know what we knew. They wanted our help," she says.

She grew close to some of the Iraqis she worked with, sharing food and family stories. One Iraqi government minister told her about his daughter's acne, so she gave him an acne-treatment cream she uses herself. He and his daughter were so grateful that she sent more when she returned home. The minister also had requested another medication he said his wife needs, which Hall later learned is a prescription heart medication. "Can you imagine? An Iraqi minister can't get heart medication for his wife."

She went to Iraq with few expectations other than that it would be hot and dusty. "If you go prepared to live out of a bag, you won't be disappointed," she says. And she wasn't. When Hall wasn't on the road inspecting far-flung dam projects, she was based in Baghdad, and had a room at one of Saddam Hussein's presidential palaces. "When you say you're staying in a presidential palace that evokes a certain aura," she says. But the aura was nothing like the reality. It was hot and dusty and the communal showers (offered at 7:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. for women) were hard to use, since she was usually gone before they opened and returned after they closed. Of 400 troops and civilians housed in the palace, 37 were women.

"It was basically pick a spot and lay out your cot," she says. She picked a spot near a window (the glass had been blown out), thinking it would bring a breeze. It did, but in the form of sandstorms. She fashioned shelves for her meager belongings out of empty water cartons. One sleepless night, as she lay on her cot, sticky with mosquito repellant and covered in the gray dust that permeated everything, she questioned what she was doing. "I thought, I'm 50 years old. What am I doing here? Then I rolled over and I looked up at the ceiling of this fabulous palace, and I thought, someday, this will be like Versailles. People will pay to visit this place. That was the one bad day I had. You can do anything for a short period of time."

A single parent, Hall raised two children before she went to college and earned a degree in electrical engineering a few years ago. "I was a stay-at-home mom for 21 years. I hadn't done much traveling [besides visiting] Yellowstone National Park," she says. She's made up for lost time in recent months. Before volunteering to work in Iraq, she served three months in Afghanistan. "For me, this was a chance to be part of something bigger in this world. It was a chance to give something back," says Hall. "People talk about winning the lottery. Well, I won the lottery-I was born in America."


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