By John Connor
Special to American Forces Press Service
Jan. 30, 2008 - The Basra Children's Hospital project can get its hooks into people. Take Army Lt. Col. Kenneth McDonald, for example. He's an area deputy commander in the Gulf Region Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and he leads the Basra Area Office in the division's southern district.
Part of his job is overseeing the Basra Children's Hospital project, one of the highest-profile, most complex and potentially most rewarding projects undertaken by USACE in its four years in Iraq. McDonald extended his tour in Iraq to two years from one to help bring the project to a successful conclusion.
"Where else, as an engineer, would you want to be?" asked McDonald, who taught in the civil and mechanical engineering department at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., before coming to Iraq in 2006.
The hospital is designed and being built as a 94-bed pediatric tertiary-care-referral hospital with a focus on pediatric oncology. Intended to support the population of southern Iraq, including Basra, the country's second-largest city, the facility also will be a training center capable of improving and expanding the training of health professionals throughout Iraq.
In a very real sense, the project is about children. "Sick kids," said McDonald, citing the grim statistic that 15 out of 100 children in southern Iraq die before the age of 5. Childhood cancers are eight to 10 times more common in Iraq than in the West.
Arthur Bennett, the USACE project manager for the hospital, told colleagues at home in a message from Iraq not long ago that "our customer for the project is the Iraqi government, but I really see it as the children." First lady Laura Bush, a leading supporter of the hospital, said that "every country's success depends upon the health and well-being of its children."
The imperative of caring for children is widely shared across the Basra community. There were rumors in the city in 2006 that the hospital job site was a CIA headquarters, and the word was out on the street that an attack was imminent. But local citizens and religious leaders of several faiths rallied, and Iraqi flags were flown. No attack came then or later -- even when British troops battled militants near the hospital.
"The mothers and wives leverage real power," McDonald said in recounting how popular sentiment has rallied behind and protected the project. "Not once has the hospital ever been attacked."
McDonald arrived in Basra just as the hospital project was being revived after stalling out. USACE was selected to lead the effort to get the project restarted and completed. He was greeted on the way in by an improvised explosive device.
"My first day after arriving in Tallil and then driving to Basra, we were hit, but sustained minimal damage," he recalled, adding that he wondered what he'd gotten himself into.
The city has more than its share of indirect fire attacks, with more than 1,000 mortar rounds landing on Contingency Operating Base Basra over the summer.
"The surreal becomes normal," McDonald said of the attacks, which in his time have seen four rounds land directly in Camp Blackadder, the USACE compound in Basra. He said the attacks have "bonded the team" and that the USACE contingent in Basra is "very proactive in procedures" to avoid casualties. "No one does not do the drill," he said.
The motto at Camp Blackadder, "Living the Dream," captures the spirit of a team proud of its mission and aware of its circumstances. The slogan can be uttered on occasion with that particular wryness to be found in a combat zone. Some British soldiers in Basra have adopted the slogan, which adorned their shirts at a recent five-kilometer race.
McDonald has no doubt the hospital will be completed successfully and that it will be "a jewel in the crown of Basra." The hospital project is being conducted in conjunction with partners including Project Hope, a nongovernmental organization, and the United Nations Development Program, which is managing a $21.75 million contribution by the Spanish government. The project will have state-of-the-art equipment. U.S.-funded construction is 77 percent complete.
Before extending his tour, McDonald said, he did a lot of soul searching. He concluded with respect to the hospital job that "something as significant as this comes only once a lifetime."
McDonald consulted his family. "What do you think I should do?" he asked his wife, Army Col. Deborah McDonald, a West Point classmate who is the director of admissions at the U.S. Military Academy, and their two children, Anna, 19, and Joshua, 14. Both children are following in their parents' footsteps. Anna has a four-year ROTC scholarship at Seton Hall University, and Joshua is in the Junior ROTC program at his high school.
"We are all very proud of Kenny," his wife said. "With pride comes a sense of accomplishment and commitment. Certainly, Kenny has shown that to us and to the men and women he works with."
She said her husband sent back a video of the hospital project and that "everyone saw it," including her daughter's ROTC detachment. "It was a wonderful message to show our future officer corps--and helped focus their minds on what their futures might hold," she said.
But it hasn't been easy, she acknowledged.
"It has been a family commitment -- and a struggle at times," she said. "We completely support Kenny in his efforts and are thankful that he not only has the expertise but the drive to provide this critical support to such a worthy project."
Still, she added, the family will be "very ecstatic" when McDonald comes home for good.
"As with any long-term deployment, it is tough on both the deployed and those at home," she said. "We know that he will return with a lasting legacy of not only a family who is immensely proud of him, but the knowledge that he stayed committed to the project through its completion."
(John Connor is a public affairs officer with the Gulf Region South district, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Iraq.)