A different look at deployment
January 27, 2012
By Jim Dresbach
Editor's note: In this issue and the next two issues of the Pentagram, the world of military deployment will be examined from those left behind at home or when deployed.
Fort Myer Fire Department Assistant Chief of Training Jon Culberson engaged in Middle Eastern patrols and was an eyewitness to how the byproducts of war can reduce provinces, cities and towns to rubble.
But Culberson also was an eyewitness to the utilization of shovels and the drilling of wells to strengthen Iraqi and Afghan municipalities. Deployed three times, twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan, Culberson assisted in rebuilding some of these country's buildings and roads brick-by-brick, yard-by-yard and mission-by-mission. The U.S. Army reserve major was a civil affairs project manager who worked closely with village elders and representatives of local and national governments in Iraq and Afghanistan to rebuild and strengthen living conditions in cities and in the countryside.
"What we do is we look at working with the locals on developing governance, civil infrastructure and essential services to the population from health care, public works and education," Culberson said about his construction and reconstruction work in the Middle East. "So we'd work with a lot of the municipalities and the districts on the provincial level and the city level trying to get them back on their feet so they can provide essential services for their population."
Those essential services included building schools, road repairs and undertaking agricultural projects, which included irrigation improvements and veterinary care for livestock. Constructing a 10-room school took about two to three months to assemble while a bridge near Kabul took Culberson's team six months to finish. "Simply, we fixed or built things," Culberson said. "By fixing the roads, we helped them in distributing their crops, so they can feed more people and make more money. When the roads are fixed, it also develops the infrastructure which allows more economic development.
"By trying to bolster the economic development, it improves everybody's situation."
Culberson's first deployment occurred in 2003. He remembers vividly when he was told to prepare for a year-long trip to Iraq. "I was working as a firefighter here at Fort Myer. It was a Saturday, and I got a phone call from my unit," Culberson remembered. "When I recognized the voice on the other end of the phone, I thought I got my calendar mixed up, and I was supposed to be at my reserve unit. They told me no, and I was being mobilized and to report in less than two weeks. We reported in and 30 days later, we got off the plane in Kuwait, and I started working in Kuwait moving equipment and coordinating equipment coming in the country."
Once in Iraq, Culberson journeyed to Nasiriyah, Baghdad, and Fallujah, and his mission was to fix and repair what had been damaged or destroyed. "There was a lot of work to do because the country had pretty much collapsed on itself," Culberson said of his first tour in Iraq. "The country -- everything -- was looted. The combat damage was pretty minimal. We knew we were going to stabilize and rebuild the country. We didn't tear up a lot of stuff. The population there did most of the damage. We spent a lot of time fixing an ongoing problem. It took several years. During my second tour, things were a little better."
But during his pair of Iraqi deployments, Culberson also took part in armored patrols and check points. "Security was first. If the bad guys shot at you, you shot back," he said. "We were on our own. There could just be a few of us out. You never knew what you were going to roll into. You had to be prepared even though we had to go out and fix something infrastructure-wise. We were out there carrying M4s and M9s. We were part of the patrol -- part of the team. We took fire and returned the same."
When entering a town or city, the infrastructure team often found educational systems reduced to just walls and shattered academic dreams which locals hoped would be rebuilt. "Some of the schools we went to, there were no roofs," Culberson recalled. "Maybe there was a tarp between a couple of walls. We saw some that were just big shipping containers that were being used as classrooms. A teacher would be in a classroom with no desks or chairs. Carpets would be on the floor for the kids, and the teacher would be up front with a piece of a blackboard doing lessons for the kids. The parents wanted to send their kids to school because they see schools as the only way to help their children."
Each deployment to Iraq lasted a year, and his time in Afghanistan totaled 11 months. Culberson found the Afghan tour, which occurred during the bulk of 2009, the most formidable.
"Afghanistan was very challenging simply because [in] Iraq, the infrastructure and development was in place," he said. "We fixed what was there. Afghanistan is much more rural and doesn't have the infrastructure. They [are] still working on the roads and getting a road around the country.
"Access to certain areas is either by helicopter or by teams who would go out on patrols for days at a time so they could get to certain locations because it is so remote."
In concluding the interview, Culberson was reflective of the time he spent in Afghanistan and Iraq. While schools were built and agricultural systems were upgraded, military comrades were lost.
"I think of the good things we did. I think of the Soldiers I served with. There are a few of them in the [Arlington National] Cemetery," he said. "In Iraq, we lost a lot of people. I think of them and things during certain times of the year.
"But, we think of all the good we tried to do. The sacrifices everybody made are going to be positive."