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Features May 2004: Volume 1, Number 2
   

A Soldier's Story
By Jennifer Reese

 
     

When you watch Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld orchestrate a press conference on CNN, you get one impression of the American presence in Iraq, and when you watch the hair-raising documentary Gunner Palace, you get another. The devastating press reports of prison abuse by American soldiers or insurgent car bombings can leave you with a sick feeling, and the uplifting accounts of the January elections have a completely different effect. No matter what your opinion about the recent war, there are bits and pieces of the larger story in all of these disparate accounts. And there is another chunk of that story in the experience of Colonel Kurt Ubbelohde. Ubbelohde, 48, is overseeing the American-funded reconstruction of the northern portion of Iraq—a dangerous, frustrating round-the-clock job that is also, Ubbelohde says, the most gratifying work he has ever done.

In the spring of 2003, shortly after Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime collapsed, the United States Army Corps of Engineers identified some 3,000 urgent construction projects across Iraq that would, in theory, help pave the way to a robust economy and stable democracy. The list included the widespread repair of power plants, railroads and oilfields damaged by the war, as well as the renovation and construction of schools, airports, police stations, clinics, roads, and other vital public works that were neglected by Saddam during his 24-year reign. Congress subsequently appropriated $18 billion to pay for the reconstruction—often billed as the largest such effort since the Marshall Plan—and it has been Ubbelohde’s role to help see that the money is well spent. The Corps divided the country into three areas and Ubbelohde’s district—known in military jargon as “Gulf Region North”—begins just above Baghdad and stretches to the borders with Syria, Turkey and Iran, encompassing both relatively peaceful Kurdistan and part of the notoriously unpeaceful Sunni Triangle.

The son of a minister and a schoolteacher, Ubbelohde was born in Alaska, went to high school in Iowa, and spent his undergraduate years at West Point on an ROTC scholarship. He was commissioned into the Army Corps of Engineers in 1979, and served as a junior officer in South Korea, and later at Ford Ord, Calif. In 1985, Ubbelohde was accepted into the Army’s prestigious Advanced Civil Schooling Program, which would pay for him to get a master’s degree in physics (not his strong suit). Ubbelohde chose UCSD because it was a top-ten physics school and, as he puts it, “they would entertain the notion of me attending. It was a lovely place to struggle to learn physics.” The hard-won physics degree helped him land several subsequent jobs, including a stint with the Defense Nuclear Agency and later a position at the Pentagon as nuclear stockpile manager.

In 2004, Ubbelohde (who often goes by “Colonel U.”) was running the Army Corps of Engineers’ Omaha, Neb., district, which reaches from Colorado to Wisconsin, when he was assigned to Iraq. As both a career soldier and engineer, the chance to be part of the country’s reconstruction seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime, one he did not think twice about seizing, despite the obvious perils. “I wasn’t nervous at all,” says Ubbelohde. “A lot of people probably view assignment to Iraq as an unimaginable fate, but I was confident I could do this well.”

And so on June 12, 2004, Ubbelohde said goodbye to his wife, Jean, and their three children, and boarded a United Airlines flight from Omaha to Kuwait City by way of Frankfurt. A few days days later, after transferring to a 19-seat turboprop plane in Kuwait, and then to an armored vehicle in Kirkuk, he arrived in Mosul. The country’s second largest city and one of its most dangerous, Mosul is headquarters of Gulf Region North and it has been Ubbelohde’s home for the last 11 months.

In Mosul, Ubbelohde lives on a heavily fortified compound in a small trailer a short walk from the Saddam-era palace where he and his crew of 35 civilian and military staffers—engineers, budget analysts, and information technology specialists, among others—work 16 hours a day, seven days a week. They bid out contracts (the Corps itself does none of the actual construction, nor does it have much leeway to move beyond the original list of projects approved by Congress), help broker deals with tribal leaders, negotiate prices on basic materials, and try to figure out ways to move gravel and concrete along the most murderous stretches of highway on the planet. The pressure to get hundreds of complicated, risky projects done quickly has been extraordinarily intense. The results—new schools, clean water, better roads—demonstrate to Iraqis that good things are happening on their behalf and will presumably help quell the rampant violence. Meanwhile, however, the violence makes rebuilding exceedingly difficult.

“You’re under very strong pressure to execute construction and that in itself is high stress. Then you put the combat environment on top of that, and it takes it to another level,” says Erik Blechinger, who was the senior civilian engineer working for Ubbelohde until earlier this year, when he transferred back to the United States. “You’re dealing with contractors being shot or materials being held up at the border, myriad issues that made it even tougher. Meanwhile the speed to execute these contracts never lets up. I wouldn’t go back, but I mean this honestly: It was probably the most rewarding professional assignment I have ever had. And Colonel U. made it that way. There were maybe one or two occasions when I saw him that he didn’t have a smile on his face. He’s a very positive, motivating person. Everything else is kind of beating you down—the war, the poverty, the stress. But he doesn’t let it happen.”

Ubbelohde’s boss, Brigadier General Thomas Bostick, agrees: “Many of the challenges here can be overcome through great teamwork and strong leadership. Kurt is simply outstanding in this regard.”

What exactly is it like for an American to live and work in Iraq in these deeply troubled times? According to Ubbelohde, the most important thing to understand about Iraq is not the violence. “I don’t mean to dismiss the reports,” says Ubbelohde, “but most places are relatively peaceful, despite what you hear in the media.” Instead, he sees Iraq’s greatest challenges as the grinding poverty and terrible living conditions. Two wars with the United States, a decade of punishing trade sanctions, and Saddam’s corrupt regime have left Iraq in shambles. In many areas, sewage runs raw in the streets and wild donkeys graze in the ubiquitous mounds of garbage. One of Ubbelohde’s first impressions was the pervasive scent of burning trash, burning vegetation and burning tires. Summer temperatures in Mosul regularly soar to 120 degrees by midday, but the country has not enjoyed 24 consecutive hours of electric power in many years. “The previous regime focused very little on maintaining their infrastructure,” says Ubbelohde. “They let the country fall into disrepair while they built palaces for Saddam, and that opulence is sickening when you see the squalor and quality of life endured by many Iraqis.”

So far, the small-ticket jobs that improve daily life for ordinary Iraqis have been the most satisfying for Ubbelohde and his crew. “For us to put a power plant on line for another hour across the country doesn’t get people’s attention,” says Ubbelohde. “But when you put a well in a community that’s been going down to the river and getting untreated water—which over here is pretty nasty—you’ve made a dramatic improvement in the quality of life. The $150,000 well can do a whole lot more than a $100 million job.” Recently, for instance, contractors dug two wells in the small town of Hasarok, in Kurdistan, and installed distribution lines to bring potable water to a few hundred houses. “The best expression of the dire need for potable water is that the infant mortality rate in Iraq is about 107 per 1000, mostly attributable to waterborne diseases,” says Ubbelohde. “On the day we visited Hasarok, the people came out en masse. They were delighted with the project and wanted to tell us in person.”

Another big winner is renovating schools. There are some 300 in Gulf Region North and many have no desks, no glass in the windows, no lights, no bathrooms, and in some cases, no teacher because there’s no place in the community for the teacher to live. “The amount of money we spent may be small by our standards, but you go into a schoolhouse, fix the plumbing, add windows, add heat, and bring in supplies and you’ve made a huge, huge impact,” says Blechinger. As of early April, 100 schools had been renovated.

Though international corporations like Bechtel and Fluor are handling the enormous jobs such as repairing oil fields, dredging canals, and erecting electrical transmission towers, the smaller jobs tend to be done by Iraqi firms. “Everything we do we try to put an Iraqi face on it,” says Ubbelohde. It hasn’t always been easy. Under Saddam, trained engineers and architects were forced to take menial work to support their families and never got much in the way of sophisticated on-the-job training, according to Ubbelohde, who was startled the first time he encountered construction professionals who had never handled a power tool and came barefoot to jobs. Cement mixers and wheelbarrows in some parts of Iraq are nonexistent: workers pour cement on the ground, mix it roughly, and haul it around in pans the size of trashcan lids. “That’s how they build, one trashcan lid at a time,” says Ubbelohde. “It was a little bit of a shock. Don’t get me wrong: there are some large, sophisticated companies here, but there are many, many firms in the rural areas whose overall acceptance of quality is very different from ours. We want things to be like they are in the United States, where you have smooth floors and walls that are straight up and down. Over here, that’s not what you get.”

And there’s another way that Ubbelohde feels he is making a difference. “When the money’s gone and we’re no longer required here, what are we going to leave? The facilities we’ve constructed, but also Iraqis trained in the management of large construction projects. It’s just a matter of giving them opportunities to see what they can do.”

Meeting daily with the large group of Corps employees and independent contractors spread over hundreds of miles is impossible, so Ubbelohde relies on telephones, email and video teleconferences. Nonetheless, about half the time he is traveling, visiting the 20 branch offices, plus as many job sites as he can. “In an organization that is dispersed—and some of these projects are very remote—it’s crucial for the people doing the work to see the commander and to know that this guy cares about them,” says Blechinger. “That’s very important to Colonel U.”

Getting around is neither easy nor safe. For security reasons, Ubbelohde generally leaves Mosul at dawn or after dark and takes circuitous routes, accompanied by up to 14 armed guards. “I’m pretty much confined to an armored vehicle that whisks me from sanctuary to sanctuary,” says Ubbelohde. “I see the streets filled with people but don’t get to interact. The convoy always draws stares, but the windows are tinted and I can only imagine what they think of the occupants racing by.” Only in Kurdistan, where there is less insurgent activity, has he walked freely through the markets.

But more than impeding his mobility, the violence has stalled the work. One of Ubbelohde’s most aggravating problems was simply getting gravel—that most basic of building materials—to a crucial airport expansion project north of Baghdad. To proceed, the contractor needed a steady stream of the stuff, thousands of metric yards over many months. But to get the gravel to the construction site, truck drivers had to pass through what Ubbelohde calls “bad country,” and there was a strong likelihood that they would be shot or kidnapped if they were caught carrying anything for the Americans. From September until December 2004, no one would haul the gravel. And who could blame them? The solution, which took months to hammer out, was a patchwork of measures. In Iraq, local tribal leaders hold immense power, and Ubbelohde’s staff helped coordinate negotiations with some of these sheiks to ensure safe passage of the trucks. For other unprotected stretches, they bargained for extra military coverage from the United States-led coalition forces. The gravel is flowing again, but these are obviously issues that most engineers ordinarily don’t have to deal with.

It is hard not to be swayed by Ubbelohde’s energy and sincerity, even when the newspaper is regularly filled with discouraging news from Iraq. “I am absolutely optimistic,” says Ubbelohde. “I think that in a few years this place is going to blossom and it will be hard to imagine what it was like in the 1980s and 1990s. The people here come back very, very quickly from any kind of intimidation, refilling the streets, heading to the market. After being repressed for so long under Saddam, the pressures against free markets and entrepreneurship have been lifted and Iraqis are experiencing what is possible. There is nothing the Army could give me as a follow-on that would be as meaningful as this job.”

Jennifer Reese is a writer, who lives in Northern California. She wrote the admissions article for the May 2004 issue of

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"Workers pour cement on the ground, mix it roughly, and haul it around in pans the size of trashcan lids. That's how they build, one trashcan at a time."