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Published:December 8th, 2006 06:27 EST

Learning, teaching and growing in Iraq

By SOP newswire

BAGHDAD " Projects under the U.S.-led reconstruction program in Iraq were initiated in the understanding that in an asymmetric war, progress is most clearly witnessed at the local level.

For both the Iraqi people and the Coalition engineers and Soldiers involved, reconstruction efforts to restore essential services and develop the capacity for future economic growth have also come as a learning experience.

With Soldiers, contractors and Iraqi residents often working side by side on construction, the groups gain an understanding of each others` cultures and viewpoints at the same time as they create a stake for the surrounding communities in seeing the national stabilization effort succeed. 

For 1st Lt. Dawn Harrison, a Mississippi Army Reservist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the work is a crucial part of the overall struggle to stand up the nation.

"These structures directly benefit the Iraqi people and are among hundreds of such projects our staff is overseeing to improve essential services and help turn this country around," she said. 

With oversight of $45 million of construction in Baghdad, her projects include the Academy of Health and Science, the Secure Documents Storage Facility, and the Al Mamoon telecommunications complex.

"Our workload is demanding, averaging 12 hours each day," Harrison said. "But I do enjoy the job, interacting with the Iraqis, learning their culture and customs [and] just being part of this effort to help them establish a democracy." 

The $4.6 million Academy of Health and Sciences will feature a health clinic including treatment rooms, dental exam rooms, pharmacy, x-ray room, and a vaccination area, as well as classrooms, an auditorium and a library. The facility will train students interested in becoming healthcare providers.

"That structure is very important because it`s where future doctors and nurses will train, as well a facility where local residents can get medical care," explained Harrison. 

Supporting Iraq`s criminal justice system, the Secure Documents Storage Facility will provide a safe storage area for courthouse documents, including records from the Saddam Hussein trials.

The $22.7 million Al Mamoon Exchange and Telecommunications Center will serve as a hub to connect Iraq to the world by means of several floors of communications switch gear. The Iraqi Ministry of Communication offices will be located there, as well as a post office, auditorium, exhibition hall and numerous conference rooms. The center is expected to be completed next year. 

 And like many reconstruction projects, the Al Mamoon complex relies heavily on local labor. About 400 Iraqis serve on the construction crew. Harrison explained their involvement comes with its own set of challenges.

"On these projects, Iraqi contractors don`t necessarily follow the same standards we follow in the United States. That`s where mentoring plays a key role, and for the most part they`re very receptive," she said. "They`re proud of their work and want to do the best job possible." 

Harrison also described how mentorship and interaction in such a contained environment has brought unexpected results. Her team includes three females " two Iraqi quality assurance representatives and herself. Both Iraqi women are trained engineers.

"They`re smart, detail oriented, and eager to learn," Harrison said. "Iraqi women don`t normally get an opportunity to be on a work site as they`re usually assigned office duties such as design work. We`ve got great camaraderie and the contractors respect the knowledge we bring to the job." 

Harrison feels she, too, has benefited from her role in Iraq, aside from just cultural exposure.

"Every day is a learning opportunity and there`s no question the experience I`ve had here would take 5 to 10 years to accumulate stateside," she said. 

The Mississippi native pointed out her projects deal with a variety of engineering challenges, including excavation, backfilling, foundations, erecting steel columns, rebar and concrete placement.

While the obstacles to the reconstruction program have been well documented, especially in Baghdad and the surrounding area, projects like Harrison`s continue to make progress. Their completion " even the act of building in many cases " serves as an important part of the Iraq stabilization effort. 

Iraqi involvement in the projects generates employment, imparts skills and knowledge and builds camaraderie with Coalition Force, while the construction enables the Iraqi government to provide services to its people and expands the country`s capacity for growth.

Harrison explained, "In some areas, we started with an empty lot full of brush and weeds, in others we had to remove a bombed-out structure, but in all cases we`re helping the Iraqis build their future." 

(Courtesy of Norris Jones, Gulf Region Central District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)