By Army Pfc. Elisebet Freeburg
Special to American Forces Press Service
May 27, 2009 - As thousands of additional troops arrive in Afghanistan, one concern has been having enough civilian experts to fill an increasing shortage in support roles. Last month, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he may ask reservists skilled in certain areas to deploy and fill those roles until replacements arrive. Months earlier, Joint Sustainment Command Afghanistan already was putting soldiers' civilian skills to use.
Army engineer 1st Lt. Alex R. Chester III originally filled an environmental science officer role with the 143rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command here.
Chester, who holds master's degrees in structural engineering, civil engineering and electrical engineering, has worked in the engineering field for 22 years and owns his own company, TAK Environmental Services.
"Before we moved out here, they found out that I had some engineering degrees and backgrounds," he said. "They asked me to be part of the torch party and come out here and fill that position and start the [building] of the 143rd compound." The torch party deployed before the main body of the 143rd ESC and ensured that living and work spaces were ready for the main body.
Chester said his current Army job is almost identical to his civilian job. "The only difference is that I don't have hazardous material to work with here," he said.
About 60 percent of Chester's civilian job is engineering, he explained, removing hazardous materials, performing demolitions and rebuilding structures. Now that he works in an engineering role for the Army, Chester will continue in that role for the rest of his deployment.
Chester said he believes his civilian education and background benefit the Army.
"It helps a lot," he said. "In the Army, you're basically training with a single [military occupational specialty], whereas with my civilian background, I've had 22 years of work. I've been trained in a multitude of skills, and I can use those skills here."
As hundreds of soldiers arrive here weekly, Chester's expertise in engineering is an integral part of the build-up of forces as he designs and builds for Joint Sustainment Command Afghanistan. He designed the compound for the 143rd ESC and will build it as well. The 143d ESC leads the command in controlling movement of supplies and personnel into and throughout Afghanistan.
"One of our issues at the 143rd is power issues with the generators," Chester said. "I'm up night and day fixing the power, keeping it running, which is exactly the kind of stuff I like to do. I love electrical stuff."
Besides working for the sustainment command, Chester -- the only licensed engineer on base -- volunteered his services to the Logistics Civil Augmentation Program, a U.S. enterprise that uses civilian contractors to support U.S. servicemembers.
"I work a lot with LOGCAP," he said. "I do a lot with electricity. They come to me for advice on what to do."
Army Master Sgt. Albert O. Ouellette, the 143rd ESC engineer noncommissioned officer in charge, works with Chester in building the 143rd ESC compound. The two soldiers have worked together since February. Besides building desks, walls, floors and chairs, they have worked on generators and electrical wiring.
"He's willing to help pretty much anybody," Ouellette said of Chester.
For example, Ouellette said, people will see Chester and stop to ask him for advice or bring by sketches to review or supply lists to check.
Chester helps contractors by rewiring buildings and planning structures. His skills have resulted in more bathrooms and showers for soldiers' living quarters. He also built the briefing and training office and the personnel and reception center for soldiers arriving here as part of the build-up. Because of Chester, buildings and tents get built faster.
Chester enjoys using his civilian proficiencies to support the troops arriving in Afghanistan.
"I think it's great, because I'm not sitting around a desk doing slideshows," he said. "I'm out doing hands-on work, which I like to do. It's helping the troops and helping the efforts out here that we're here to do."
Other soldiers have noticed his work ethic and skill.
"He's willing to put out as much time necessary," Ouellette said. "He's relentless. It'll be pouring rain, or they'll call him at 3 in the morning to work on the generator, and he'll come on down."
After finishing the 143rd ESC compound, Chester plans to visit forward operating bases, using his expertise to further support the additional troops. "I'll be going out primarily to do some inspections and some rewiring and build-out," he said.
(Army Pfc. Elisebet Freeburg serves with Joint Sustainment Command Afghanistan.)