Engineers at War

Considering a job in Iraq or Afghanistan? Here's what to expect


So maybe it wasn’t the safest route. But the road around Camp Anaconda, about 100 kilometers north of Baghdad, really was the quickest way to work. It was also a quick way to your karmaï»'. ”I was told not to drive on it, first time,” says Gerald Carden, a civilian project engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. ”When a mortar hit 200 yards behind me, that was the last time I drove on that shortcut.”

In July, well into his second tour of duty, which ended last month, Carden was stationed at Camp Victory, adjoining Baghdad’s international airport. ”It’s an unusual day if there are only two mortar attacks,” he said then.

Like many of his colleagues, Carden was lured to the rebuilding efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan by a sense of purpose, the adventure, and a hefty paycheck. Combined with overtime and hazard pay, engineers can earn twice as much as for the same work stateside. Carden, with degrees in electrical and industrial engineering, was pulling in upward of US $220 000 a year for 12â''hour days and six-and-a-half-day weeks overseeing work on hospital construction and power distribution.

The U.S. Department of Defense and the Army Corps of Engineers are still looking for a few good civilian engineers (go to Although many of the contracts with private industry are winding down in Iraq, building in Afghanistan is ramping up.

Washington Group International, an engineering, construction, and management firm in Boise, Idaho, is exploring possible projects in Afghanistan. The company has cut its employment in Iraq to 75 ­expatriate and 1000 Iraqi engineers from a high of 200 expats and 5000 Iraqis. (At press time, the San Francisco engineering firm URS was poised to purchase WGI.)

An engineer’s life in a war zone may be a little different from what you’d expect. First come a background check, a stringent physical exam, paperwork, safety training, and immunizations for diseases ranging from anthrax to ­tetanus. The process can take from two weeks to two months, depending on the employer. Then there’s insurance. The Defense Base Act requires companies to pay death, disability, and medical bene­fits to workers on military bases outside the United States. But with DBA coverage maxing out at $4200 per month, ­employees—­particularly those with dependents—tend to pay for supplemental life insurance, which can pay out six to eight times their annual salaries. They’re also advised to draw up a will and set up a power of attorney.

Safety training and precautions vary by company and are the most important considerations when weighing job options. ”The most common mistake people make is not realizing how truly dangerous the situation is there,” says Paul Beat, director of project management for Control Risks, a risk assessment firm in London.

So before signing on, engineers should ask about their employer’s crisis management plan, its security firm, the personal safety equipment it provides (such as helmets, gas masks, and Kevlar vests), the security of accommodations and in-­country transport, and the training courses and briefings required before deployment. Such courses run from a day to a week and outline medical procedures and first aid, local customs and culture, how to survive an attack or kidnapping, how to cooperate with your personal security detail, and how to avoid land mines.

The screening and training processes winnow out about a fifth of the applicants, but even those who make the cut don’t always get the hint. ”We had a couple who wanted to go to the mosque as tourists and walked off the base in full violation of safety policies,” says Debi Mitchell, WGI’s human resources manager for the Middle East Construction Program. ”They were okay, but we sent them home immediately. I guess they thought they were there to go sightseeing.”

In fact, engineers rarely leave their bases. Since Americans on construction sites tend to attract insurgents, engineers mainly work from their computers on military bases, and they communicate by phone and e-mail. Off-campus travel requires a small convoy of armored vehicles and a personal security detail.

”Although my dominant consideration was salary, I had a different picture of getting out into the community, helping people, and being more hands-on,” Carden says. ”But in Baghdad, you don’t have an option. You rarely visit the site you’re doing the engineering for. Usually, the nationals come to the base for meetings.”

He did have the chance to mentor some young Iraqi engineers working on the base and to sink his teeth into jobs converting a mishmash of foreign equipment to Iraqi frequencies. ”There were problems you’d never see in the U.S.,” he says. ”It was getting back to the nuts and bolts of engineering.”

Most of the engineers are male and married, though there are a handful of husband-wife teams, and more female engineers are joining than ever before. Spouses and kids remain in their home countries.

Vacation policies vary according to employer. The Corps of Engineers offers two weeks of R&R between the second and 10th months for those on a one-year tour. WGI allows a two-week vacation every 75 days. Engineers get a ticket home or the monetary equivalent toward a destination of their choice; most either go home or take vacations in Europe or Southeast Asia.

In between breaks, military bases offer volleyball games, barbecues, and movies, as well as swimming pools and libraries, not to mention cable news and sports. ”Golfers are just out of luck,” Carden says. ”There’s plenty of sand trap and no course.”

The best candidates for the jobs are flexible and low-key. In the words of one army major, ”If a mortar exploding a hundred yards away will send them scurrying into a shelter sucking their thumb, then they should just probably stay home.”

One civil engineer who worked with the Corps of Engineers at Camp Fallujah in 2005 and 2006 saw a contract for four police stations fall apart after insurgents killed the site superintendent. With more security came increased costs, and when the project finally did go ahead, it was for two stations for the price of the original four.

Due to the changing security situation, ”you have to be flexible—there’s a lot of hurry up and wait,” says the engineer, who did not want to be identified. ”If you like a certain routine and a latte before work, this is not the right job for you.”

If the mortars don’t get to you, the bureaucracy might.

”People who have never worked with the military are amazed by the amount of red tape and government paperwork,” Carden says. ”It’s like trying to water-ski behind an aircraft carrier. Detail-oriented personalities and hotheads do not function well in this environment—there are too many projects to get done.”

It can be taxing even for the most seasoned. After 19 months in Iraq, Carden was ready to call it quits in July. ”This is the last tour,” he said. ”I’m 60 years old and getting past the point of wearing body armor. It’s beginning to lose its appeal.”

About the Author

SUSAN KARLIN has contributed to The New York Times , Forbes, and Discover .

To Probe Further

Organizations posting contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan include Washington Group International, in Boise, Idaho;, of Morecambe, England; and the Iraqi Power Alliance, in Sydney, Australia, and London.