Special to washingtonpost.com
Sunday, March 19, 2006 12:00 AM
Army reservist Lisa Dunphy was deployed to Iraq in November 2004 and was based at Al-Asad, located in the western portion of the country. Her tour was cut short in May 2005 when a family emergency required her to return home.
To Dunphy, one problem was that she found that contractors were responsible for the jobs that she and her fellow soldiers had been trained to perform. "To a person, none of us were really working our real mission. I'd just go to my building and sit at a computer and do my contracts or whatever, and then go to lunch, stand in line, eat lunch and go back to work. [At] 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. go back to your room and either go to the gym or whatever. It was like a normal life because we weren't running the operations that the Marines [also stationed in Al-Asad] were. They were doing the real work."
An earlier tour in Bosnia left a bad taste in Dunphy's mouth about the role contractors played in war zones. Her Iraq experience didn't change that opinion.
"The whole idea of it is to free up the military to deal with military stuff. What they do is employ a lot of locals -- in Iraq, a lot more seemed like Filipino, maybe Indian. There would be a generator broken. We'd have soldiers that could fix it, but they couldn't touch it because they would void the contract. So we couldn't fix our own stuff, would have to call and put in a work order with [Kellogg Brown & Root]. It just seemed like a big bottleneck for almost everything you needed or wanted to do. You wanted to fix a road or building, you couldn't do it. Had to jump through a lot of hoops. I think it's become more of a hindrance than it's a help. I know the food was better than if Army cooks were doing it, but we had no jobs for them [the Army cooks]. They can't cook because that would void contracts, yet we sent them over anyway. It seemed like there were an awful lot of civilians that were not working very hard. It was like an overabundance of people, your stereotypical one person digging, 16 people watching."
Without enough work to keep them busy, service members found other ways to stay busy, Dunphy said. "We ended up taking charge of the infrastructure of the base -- making sure water was treated properly, electricity. Getting a new Post Office built, that was one project I worked on. Al Asad was one of five bases that was going to be a main location while smaller bases would close."
Or, Dunphy said, the under-employed troops worked on having fun. "We played poker every night. Some of the boys built a deck and put up a Jacuzzi type thing. We made our own workout thing. There was a lot of time. Too much time is as bad as not enough. You start thinking about being home."
To make sure her family understood what was going on in Iraq, Dunphy said she would explain how what she was doing would make their lives better. "My son thinks war is like what's on TV -- standing behind a tree and shooting at something. I wanted them to know I was safe and it wasn't so bad. All you see on TV is bad -- someone died, something blew up. I knew that every day there are car bombs and IEDs going off, but it's gotten to the point now that two soldiers die and that's what you see on the news. but all the good stuff -- in my little corner, getting the base on a permanent electric grid instead of generators -- that kind of thing didn't get on the news at all. Even now, on a slow news day, you turn on the news and it's all bad stuff in Iraq."
Dunphy said she was proud to serve in a combat zone. "Even though it was extremely difficult to go and it was scary and horrible to go, it is what we as reservists are drilling once a month to do. ... And I know that when I end my career I could say I actually did it. There were guys who had been in military 25 years and had never been to war. In a sick way -- I guess it's sick -- it was just doing what we trained for. You really felt like, this was the show. This is why you're in the military is because you're supposed to want to go there."
-- As told to Washington Post reporter Sonya Geis