Building Strong from the Rocky Mountains to the Peaks of Afghanistan
December 3, 2012
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan - Nestled below the rugged peaks of the wild and pristine Cabinet Mountains, an outdoor enthusiast's paradise, rests Libby, Mont., home to skier and hiker, Jeff Regh.
From his duty station at Libby Dam and beautiful Lake Koocanusa in Montana, Regh works as an electrical engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Seattle District. For more than a decade, his predictable schedule and the rural location of his post has allowed Regh to explore the Rocky Mountain wilderness and volunteer as a search and rescue technician crewleader at a non-profit organization in his hometown. For the next several months, however, the only wilderness surrounding Regh will be the sharp peaks and isolated valleys of southern Afghanistan.
In May of 2012, Regh, 50, deployed to the Kandahar Vicinity Resident Office at Forward Operating Base Lindsey. He currently serves as a project engineer supporting the mission to build high-quality facilities for the burgeoning Afghan National Security Forces. Nearly as vital as the mission to mentor ANSF so they can provide safety and security in their homeland, is the USACE mission to build installations where those security forces may live, work and train. For close to a decade, the USACE, with its engineering, construction, and contracting expertise, has been building much-needed infrastructure in Afghanistan.
Technical experts like Regh, who in addition to being an electrical engineer, was a general contractor and small business owner, are crucial to delivering appropriate facilities within the time and budget allotted.
Regh's career path leading to Afghanistan is at once a mix of wanderlust and the yearning to be home. After graduating from high school in Montana, Regh was eager to leave his small town and head to the big city, he said. He set roots in urban New Jersey on account of a construction job. Six years passed and at the age of 24, cognizant that a young body is only young for so long, Regh thought it might be a good idea to go to college, he said. He had had enough of the big city, including nearby Manhattan and all its enticements, so he applied to Montana State University in Bozeman. The son of a general contractor and from a long line of electrical workers, Regh had an aptitude for engineering, math and construction. He graduated with a bachelor of science in electrical engineering and once again wanderlust grabbed hold of him. Regh was off to Sweden to work for an energy company. But home was always close to the self-described country boy's heart and upon finishing a four-month stint in Sweden, Regh returned to Montana.
"I just really wanted to be in Montana, but jobs were scarce," he said. "The only way I could stay in Montana was to make my own job, so that's what I did."
Regh secured a small business loan, bought out a Montana-based existing electrical contractor and got to work. He served as a contractor on many private sector as well as public sector projects including some for the USACE at Libby Dam. Proving that no one works as hard as an owner, Regh would often work seven days a week, 12 hour days.
"When you're building a business, you're either working all the time on existing contracts or looking for new work," he said.
Such a schedule was tolerable when Regh was single, but upon marrying his bride Anne, and immediately becoming stepfather to two children some eleven years ago, Regh yearned to spend more time with his new family. An electrical engineering job with the Seattle District came up; Regh applied and was selected for the position. The predictable hours allowed Regh to enjoy time with his family and pursue his hobbies which included skiing and hiking.
On one hike with his nephew in 2001, Regh happened upon a terrifying scene in the Cabinet Mountains. A hiker had fallen into a bergschrund and was severely injured. A bergschrund is a type of crevasse on a glacier that is very deep and narrow.
"He couldn't speak, his eyes were swollen shut, his head was swelling; he was incoherent and in really bad shape," said Regh of the injured hiker.
Regh and his nephew called for help, but due to the remote nature of the accident on Snowshoe Peak, the highest peak in the Cabinet Mountains at some 8,700 feet, rescuers could not reach the victim until the following day. Regh, his nephew and the victim's companion, who was not injured, spent the night at the scene, caring for the wounded man as best as they could. The next morning volunteer search and rescue specialists with a local non-profit organization named David Thompson Search and Rescue arrived along with Air Force personnel and a helicopter from Malmstrom Air Force Base. The search and rescue volunteers set up a system to raise the victim out of the crevasse. Although he was rescued, he had suffered brain damage from his fall.
"It was a milestone moment for me," said Regh. "I knew I wanted to help rescue victims," he said.
Since 2002, Regh has volunteered with David Thompson Search and Rescue and has participated in about 12 significant rescue or recovery events. Regh has risen through the ranks and completed special training and examinations to become a crewleader. His training has included FEMA's National Incident Management System, small unit leadership, maps, land navigation, hazardous terrain skills, stress management and more. Even his pets are involved. Tux, his 11 year-old Border Collie and Hannah, his eight year-old black Labrador, have both served as search and rescue dogs. His service as a search and rescue technician, his education and training in electrical engineering, his years as a construction worker and his yearning for travel and adventure, all contributed to Regh's decision to deploy to Afghanistan.
"I wanted to do something different, something challenging that would get me out of my comfort zone," he said.
His advice for fellow engineers who may be considering deployment, "Be flexible, patient and prepared for challenges." He added, "Deployment life is sometimes uncomfortable, other times it is hilarious or surprising and often, it's all three at once."
Regh said he is blessed with the best workgroup he could have asked for including Ira Dorsett, a structural engineer who deployed to Afghanistan from the New Orleans District and Al Lora, a quality assurance construction representative who deployed from the Louisville District.
One of Regh's goals for this deployment includes delivering high-quality facilities on time and on budget, which is no easy task considering language and cultural barriers as well as security concerns. Another one of Regh's goals is to leave Afghanistan having helped Afghan contractors improve their processes.
"Professionals like Jeff, with a wide-range of experience as well as technical expertise, possess the know-how to manage complex projects from start to finish," said U.S. Army National Guard Lt. Col Eric Bishop. Himself a civil engineer and small business owner, Bishop serves as the Kandahar Area Office Officer in Charge. "We have an aggressive schedule and need to deliver first-rate installations in a timely manner. Folks like Jeff deliver."