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Engineers Rebuild Afghanistan Infrastructure, One Bridge At a Time
Daniel and Joseph

Not too many engineers commute to the office each morning with a 9-millimeter pistol and an M-16 rifle in tow. But for the first seven months of this year, Joseph Murphy's office was in Bagram, Afghanistan, where the civil engineer was serving to accommodate his other "job": that of First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army National Guard's 527th Engineer Battalion-Combat Heavy.

Murphy, a 32-year-old project manager in TBE Group Inc. office, returned to his Mesquite, Texas, office last month after ending a deployment to Afghanistan that began in January to rebuild its war damaged infrastructure. "The [national guard] company that I am in is a combat heavy unit, which, in simple terms, is a construction company," says Murphy.  "We did everything from constructing roads, to placing concrete and constructing wood frame structures. We completed roughly 150 projects and work orders."

Murphy joined the Army National Guard in 1989 while pursuing his civil engineering degree at Louisiana Tech University. "I always wanted to be in the army, but I also wanted to pursue a career as a civil engineer, so the Guard was the logical choice," he says. "It didn't hurt that in Louisiana, the Guard pays 100% tuition."

In his civilian life, Murphy is a project manager who works on subsurface utility engineering projects for TBE, which he joined in 2002. In the past, he has completed projects for the Texas Dept. of Transportation, Dallas Area Rapid Transit and local municipalities.

Murphy isn't alone among young Texas-based civil engineers who were working in Bagram this year. Daniel Filer, a project manager in the Dallas office of HNTB Corp., arrived there last February. He had also entered the Army National Guard while pursuing his civil engineering degree at Louisiana Tech. "My parents were footing the [tuition] bill, but that just did not sit well with me," says Filer, 26, a Sergeant in the 527th Engineer Battalion--Combat Heavy. "Even with some scholarship money, college is expensive and I just didn't want my parents to have to pay for it all."

Filer graduated with his B.S. degree in civil engineering in 2000 and began work in the bridge department of HNTB’s Dallas office. He was in the middle of completing a civil engineering Masters' degree from the University of Texas, Arlington, when he was deployed to Afghanistan.

There, Filer worked as a contractor, overseeing earthmoving and concrete operations. "With my engineering and surveying experience, I also provided quality control and surveying support for other construction endeavors, usually concrete.  At times, I was relied upon for design or a common sense check of design work," he says.  "And, when we were not building things, we still had to be soldiers and do miscellaneous things like guard duty."

The most difficult challenges facing engineers working to rebuild the war-torn region is lack of adequate materials, the country’s extreme climate and working in a hostile environment. "Getting U.S. spec material is a big problem. We bought most of our wood locally. You never know what you will get," says Murphy. "As you might expect, the soil is very sandy and contains lots of rocks.  It makes doing site work a real challenge.  Just when things are going your way the wind starts to pick up and you’re pushing dirt and creating a sandstorm."

"Operating equipment in 40-plus m.p.h. winds around soils that are as fine as baby powder is near impossible," Filer says. "Operators must endure the dust, and air filters have to be maintained carefully.  Concrete can also be interesting to pour in high winds.  The wind can dry out the concrete towards the top too quickly, causing cracking.  But putting plastic over it is quite a task in the wind as well."

When Murphy and Filer arrived in Afghanistan, the weather was cold and rainy and the sun rose at 8 a.m. and set around 4:30 p.m. Towards the end of their deployment, their work schedules were more intense, stretching from 5:30 a.m. to at least 8 p.m.

"We worked six days a week. We usually had Sundays off, but we did physical training three times a week before work," says Murphy. "My job was to inspect all the project sites daily.  I ensured that projects were being constructed according to the plans and that all the equipment tasked out the day before was where it was supposed to be. On any given day we were working on six to ten projects."

While most would fear working in an environment strewn with potential enemies and physical obstacles, Murphy and Filer say they enjoyed their assignment.

"I enjoy all the challenges each day brings.  Mine fields and UXO's [unexploded ordnance] are a never ending threat," says Murphy. "We had to have a mine team clear the area before we did any dirt work project. Even then, we sometimes uncovered something.  We were doing some grading and uncovered a bomblet out of a cluster bomb."

Now that they're home, Filer and Murphy are making a tough adjustment. "We were required to carry our weapons with us at all times, so now it's interesting going to work and wondering where my 9mm and M-16 are," says Murphy. "I am sure the people at work would rather I didn't bring them."


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