Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Not Just A Job

It was an early morning as we moved the equipment in to get set up for the day's project. Brad was the lead, with Tim backing him up. As we went about putting things in place we made the usual small talk. However, with us it's generally not about movies or the weather. Since we don't work together all the time, the question first up is more likely to be, "So whatya been up to?"

Brad went first and talked about some recent jobs on which he had been. Nothing too radical: a meeting here, a musical performance there. He turned the tables on me, and I related the kinds of things that I had been doing. Again, while I had been keeping out of trouble, there was nothing in particular that made for an interesting story. Finally, we turned to Tim, who is a quiet, clean-cut guy. "And what about you," I queried. Nothing special, he said. I allowed it had been awhile since we worked together. "That's right," he said, "I think the last time was just before I went to Iraq."

Iraq? In the world of "whatya been up to," that certainly takes the cake.

Turns out that Tim is an Army reservist, with this year being his 20th. He joined back in 1988 for, as he put it, "the training, discipline and challenge the Army offers." He chose the Signals Corp as his specialty, hoping it would teach him skills that future employers would find of value. In his case, that meant he learned the in and outs of the telecommunications field, starting with copper wire and more recently, the intricacies of fiber optics.

Tim lived the standard reservist's life. One weekend a month he had to muster up for a drill, as well as an annual 2 to 3 week stint away from home. There were also additional specialty schooling requirements in any given year, some of which lasted a day, others a couple of weeks. But he was with a good group of people, which turned his service into more than an obligation: "The Unit has always been like a second family to me. We almost always got along and often times socialize after Drill. We worked hard and played hard."

Of course, being in the Reserves isn't just about weekend drills and drinking with your buddies. It comes with the knowledge that you may be called up at any time for deployment anywhere. For Tim, that time turned out to be the summer of 2007. He got his orders and started what would turn out to be a 500 day odyssey from his home and family in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania.

In July of that year he left from his local airport to a base in Georgia for orientation and a "Soldier Readiness Program." Then it was on to Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg, MS for "Mobilization Training." A month later he was ready to go, and headed via a stopover in Shannon, Ireland to Kuwait. From there he moved in country and toured a couple of bases in Baghdad on his way to his home for the next year near Tikrit, the Al Sahara Airfield, known to most as Contingency Operating Base or COB Speicher.

The base is home to up to 15,000 troops, and is ringed with 25 kilometers of security fencing and watchtowers. Set in the unforgiving desert, Tim described it as "flat, barren, with few trees and sparse vegetation, the ground consisting of hard packed sand, topped very fine baby powder like sand which clumps together when wet and sticks to everything like clay. The high temps were around 126+ and the lows were in the 20's. We had heavy rains, extreme wind and terrible mud, as well as light snow and giant sandstorms, which could darken the skies to a deep red or black for hours to days."

The base itself was a combination city and airport. It had three runways, along with support services for the myriad of planes and helicopters that come in and out. There was a hospital, a prisoner detainment facility, laundries and gyms. And this being an American air base, it had its creature comforts as well: Pizza Hut, Subway, Cinnabon, Taco Bell, Burger King, Green Bean Coffee, and Seattle's Best all had shops on post.

Tim was assigned to a team that put in a control facility and fiber optic network to 134 locations, including a new R&R facility on the base. He dug trenches, passed cables and wired up buildings. To complete the work in the deadline he had been given, he worked long hours and some weekends. It was not unlike what you see the cable or phone guy doing in your neighborhood... hot, dusty, dirty... except he did it in a war zone 6000 miles from home.

Tim spent most of his time on the base, save a few trips to other bases and some R&R out of the country. His impressions of the locals he worked with were favorable: "They were pleasant and wanted to work." Likewise most of the soldiers: "They were extremely dedicated. Few were simply putting in the time; most were putting their best foot forward and completing their missions." And as to what he did in Iraq? He dodged the politics and talked about the mission: "There is a need for the US to maintain the base until the strategic withdrawal is planned and execution begins. And that's what I was doing."

And now he's home. I asked him if he would be willing to go back if asked: "Yes, definitely," he replied. But if and until that possibility comes up, he's working with us. I confess I feel a little embarrassed when we bitch about something small or complain about something trivial, knowing what he's been through. But Tim takes it all in stride, doing his job with good humor and dedication... the same traits he carried with him halfway around the world.


Marc Wollin of Bedford thanks any and all of the Tims who give so much of themselves. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.