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American Forces Press Service

Team Builds Border Post to Enhance Iraq's Security

By Elaine Eliah
American Forces Press Service

BAGHDAD, Nov. 18, 2005 The Iraq/Syria border is a seemingly arbitrary line scratched into the sand, punctuated occasionally by cone-shaped stone marker piles, which are often the highest points around.

It's only 250 miles from Baghdad, but with circuitous routing that goes from bad roads to no roads at all. By the time an advance party of the Air Force Center for Environmental Excellence and contractor ECC International completed their 12-hour trip, no one was in the mood for surprises.

"When we arrived, there were only three tents," recalled Ali Mommad Hadi, the first Iraqi civil engineer hired by AFCEE. "And no Internet!"

Considering it was mid-August, ECCI's Chris Perry had other priorities - such as electricity, air conditioning and flooring. The newly arrived project manager interrupted the evening repose of his subcontractors and set them doing what should have been long completed.

"From 8:30 to 10 that night they set up a tent for him," Hadi recalled. "In three days, they put up 10 more tents."

So began Border Fort 9, one of a string of posts along the border between Iraq and Syria. These not only will define a frontier that has never been more than open desert, but also will also enable the Iraqi Department of Border Enforcement to clamp down on foreign fighters entering Iraq.

An earth berm encloses and protects the perimeter, and guard towers stand in each corner. Tents provide sleeping and office space, with an additional tent serving as the dining facility.

"We did it in 14 days," Perry said, though nothing came easy and nearly everything demanded engineering flexibility.

All the images of drifting desert sands turned into a mirage when just a couple of inches into digging a septic tank, workers hit solid rock, making excavation difficult and a leach field impossible. Enter Plan B: Gray water required a cistern and sump system to pump it far enough beyond the berm. A black water-holding tank was built, and a vacuum vehicle, supplied through the life-support contract, was provided to truck waste offsite. "Downwind," Perry pointed out, "but within view of the guard towers."

The original statement of work talked of renovating structures; the team found none worth the effort. Plans called for a trench to encircle the perimeter berm, deep enough to impede vehicles. Once again, solid rock argued formidably against excavation. Instead, twin parallel berms were created, supplemented by sand-filled defense walls in some areas.

Hadi kept his AFCEE affiliation covert among the Iraqi workers. He said he found he could implement guality assurance more efficiently through mediation, interpreting these necessary changes between Perry and the subcontractor.

"The most challenging part of my job," he said, "was encouraging people to work with the Americans." They were good workers, he added, but they couldn't understand their directions. "Chris was the first project manager I've ever seen working with his own hands, trying to show them every step," the Iraqi civil engineer said.

Hadi also found himself negotiating, not always successfully, between the expatriate private security team and the Iraqi border guards stationed at the fort. A detachment of border guards left at the end of their 20-day assignment, despite the fact their replacements had not yet arrived.

While the private security team manned two of the towers and maintained diligent radio watch, it turned out to be a peaceful night.

Adaptability ensured the job was completed, but it also facilitated survival and sanity while pitching camp in the middle of a desert summer. "It's all about quality of life," insisted Robert "Stu" Cox, ECCI security manager.

First step: Run enough power lines for air conditioning in the sleeping tents. Second step: Hoist a 500-liter tank onto a stand to take your first shower after three days of sweaty work. Third step: Create a sit-down commode.

It was a week before a washing machine was discovered at Border Fort 10. "It was like a dream in the desert," Hadi said. "I took a photo of it."

With one fort up and running, it was time to focus on BF-8, some 13 miles away. Rising a good 200 meters off the desert floor, it's no surprise this site had previously served as a fort. The remaining structures were beyond renovation, but their demolition contributed landfill for a larger, more level construction site.

Sunsets over desert sands brought a welcome drop in temperature, and brought colors that Iraq's summer skies often lack. So far away from city lights, the darkening sky became a planetarium. Though there was nothing to burn for the roundup campfire, even military field rations, washed down with bottled water, taste better under the stars, provided you can keep the sand out. With the generator turned off at 11 p.m., the silence became deafening.

"I think it's my job to help my country build these border forts, camps, schools and hospitals," said Ali. "Ten years from now, I can take my children to these border forts and say I did my part."

(Elaine Eliah is a communications specialist with ECC International, Baghdad.)

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