Technicians have as big an impact as soldiers in Iraq

The country’s ultimate success may depend as much on technicians and turbines as on soldiers and Bradley fighting vehicles.

By Paul Studebaker

As we go to press, two American civil engineers have been taken from their homes in Baghdad, held hostage by Iraqi insurgents and beheaded. Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley were working on Iraqi civilian reconstruction projects for Gulf Supplies and Commercial Services, a firm based in the United Arab Emirates. Armstrong grew up in Michigan and is survived by a wife in Thailand. Hensley, 48, left wife Pati and 13-year-old daughter Sara in South Carolina. The fate of a third hostage, Briton Kenneth Bigley, 62, is uncertain.

Though an official count is not available, it’s estimated there are about 20,000 civilian contractors in Iraq, one for every six military personnel. Many are employed by U.S.-based engineering and services companies like Fluor, CH2M Hill and, of course, Halliburton’s Kellogg, Brown & Root. Thousands are engineers, millwrights and electricians involved in reconstructing Iraq’s pipelines, schools, hospitals, and power-generation and distribution systems.

I have to marvel at their motivation. Sure, there’s the money -- about twice what the equivalent job pays here, plus room and board -- but is it really enough to explain their willingness to be thousands of miles from family, friends and home, immersed in a foreign culture, and yes, risk their lives to do this work? I don’t think so.

Nancy Updike, contributing editor for radio program “This American Life,” went to Iraq and talked with several American engineers. Mike from Texas, who works for Fluor, is a “power plant geek,” Updike says. “There are guys who come to Iraq who know guns and do guns, and then there are guys who are technicians: sewage geeks, water geeks, refinery geeks, electricity geeks.”

Mike is really into what he does -- the job, the tools, the equipment -- “and not just the plant and power-producing equipment,” he says. “I want to see what kind of cranes they have.”
 Even before the war, electric power in Iraq was unreliable. The Army Corps of Engineers says very little of the country’s power-generation and transmission system was damaged by fighting. The problem is the plants are at least 20 years old and have not been kept in good condition.

Do you think your management is miserly with spare parts and investment in new equipment? Saddam Hussein starved the country’s power plants of money and parts for decades. During sanctions, the plants suffered more. As a result, Updike says, they’ve been “jury-rigged and retrofitted and carefully taped together by Iraqi workers for years.”

Then there was the looting. Updike reports, “Every gauge, valve, wire, small motor and scrap of metal that wasn’t nailed down was carted off.”

Rich, a site manager from Oklahoma, says, “Everything left was junky at a very special and rarely seen level of junkiness.”

Fluor employees are working seven days a week, 12 to 15 hours a day, trying to fix six plants at once and cramming work that should take a year or more into seven months. Of course, each of the country’s 28 power plants is unique, and parts are hard to get. Iraq has very little manufacturing capability, so all components must be imported. Meanwhile, there’s a worldwide shortage of major power plant equipment.

According to interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s speech before Congress Sept. 23, the Iraqi people are thankful for the U.S. presence in their country. But Updike says they don’t understand why, a year after the invasion, they’re still dealing with blackouts every day. She says electricity, after security, is the No. 1 frustration for a lot of Iraqis.

The ultimate success of the regime change in Iraq is likely to depend as much on technicians and turbines as on soldiers and Bradley fighting vehicles. Along with scratching their itch to see how things work in another country, technical experts like Mike and Rich are helping to stabilize the political situation and materially contributing to the future of this embattled country.

The experience they’re gaining by rebuilding this foreign infrastructure in a hurry under adverse conditions will give them knowledge and skills that will make them very valuable to U.S. industry when they get back.

If they still have their heads.

Paul Studebaker is editor in chief for Plant Services magazine. E-mail him at pstudebaker@putman.net.

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