Building Strong through education, faith, risk
December 27, 2012
In a village off the coast of the Caribbean Sea, surrounded by abundant areas to hunt, fish, hike and dream, 13 year-old Hector Vega decided there was only one place he wanted be: America. How then, did he end up in Afghanistan working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers?
Born in Puerto Cortés, Honduras in 1960, Vega descended from a long-line of fisherman and miners. As such, he learned much about the natural world around him and the value it contained.
From early childhood on, Vega excelled in school. He demonstrated aptitude for math beyond his years, but it wasn't dumb luck that made him so smart. Like many coastal villages bearing plenty of natural beauty, but little economic opportunity, employment choices were limited in Puerto Cortés.
"I could be a miner or a fisherman," he said. "And my grandmother told me, 'don't be a fisherman because they drink too much,'" Vega quipped with a broad smile.
Born into a poor, but loving family, he learned to manage time and scarce resources wisely. Vega also came to understand that if he was going to immigrate to America, it was his intellect and potential that would get him there.
As a teenager, Vega wrote a letter to the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa explaining that he was an excellent student, responsible, healthy and fit, and wondered if he was eligible for any scholarships that would allow him to study in the United States. He was. Upon graduating from both technical and traditional high schools, Vega was on a plane to America and the University of Arizona's College of Engineering. An American company had granted him a scholarship. This marked the first time 18 year-old Vega had ever been apart from his family.
He was lonely, but quickly found a mentor in Meliton Garcia, a professor of safety and occupational health.
"To this day, I still seek his council," said Vega of the New Mexico native he affectionately calls padrino, which means godfather in Spanish.
As often happens in college, Vega fell in love with a beautiful, smart coed. He married quickly at age 19.
Upon graduating with a bachelor of science degree in geological engineering, Vega went to work fulltime for the company that had granted him the scholarship. He was sent near the arid and barren border of Arizona and Mexico to some copper mines to conduct geophysical and geotechnical investigations. He was later dispatched to the "middle of nowhere," he said, near the San Bernardino Mountains in California to work at an open pit mine. It was work he loved even though he would often encounter "fat snakes, skinny horses and rats the size of baby pigs," he said. Regrettably, he also witnessed work-related fatalities. According to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, since the earliest days of mining, digging materials out of the earth has been considered one of the world's most dangerous occupations.
In the 1980's, laws, including the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, were established concerning hazardous waste sites. Such laws made liable those responsible for releasing hazardous waste at these sites and established a trust fund to provide for cleanup when no responsible party could be identified. Vega's interest in protecting natural resources resulted in a career shift to environmental engineering at the California Department of Toxic Substances Control.
"America had given me so much opportunity, I felt as though I had a debt to pay," he said of his decision to go into public service.
Vega had wanted to join the Navy after college and map the sea floor, but his wife urged him not to join, he said.
Vega committed himself instead to projects that reduced the volume and ensured the proper disposal of hazardous waste materials and contaminated objects. He worked with private industry to establish best practices and helped protect the environment from the harmful effects of toxic substances through the restoration of contaminated resources. This work led him to the Idaho National Laboratory where he collected, evaluated and managed radiological and chemically contaminated facilities, soil, water and waste material. At the lab, he met Kim Rodgers, who became another mentor.
"Kim was very supportive and impressed with my work, but recommended I pursue an advanced degree in engineering," Vega said.
Despite working fulltime and being a new dad to beautiful little Lucia, Vega earned not just one advanced degree in engineering, but an additional master's degree in interdisciplinary studies, too. He had been promoted at the lab and started work on a doctorate. Then everything in his life derailed when Vega's wife told him she wanted a divorce, he said. She went to Arizona and took little Lucia with her.
"The loss was so profound; I didn't want anything but my family back," he said.
Vega took a leave of absence and went to Arizona but it was of no use. The couple divorced and Lucia remained in Arizona. Vega was heartbroken and did not want to return to Idaho or the lab.
"My mother says, 'a man who doesn't own his own destiny will never become the man he needs to be.'"
So instead of returning to the lab, Vega went to Texas in search of his fortune. He bought 100 acres and 17 cows and decided to become a rancher. The cows became pets.
"How could I kill them? I knew each one," he said.
Vega also started a small business with three dump trucks and one backhoe. He made his brother the manager. Vega didn't realize his brother could not identify problems and develop and implement solutions until it was too late. When two clients failed to pay Vega about $60,000, he simply couldn't continue to operate. He sold his trucks, paid out final checks to employees and gave his cows and land to his sister. He even opened the doors to his home and told family, friends and neighbors to take whatever they wanted.
"I was divorced, I had no money, no work, and I didn't have my daughter. I felt like a total failure. All I had was my education and experience," he said, and something else. "I did have faith in God and the love and support of my mother."
Vega yearned for a fresh start and despite being in his early forties, decided to apply for internships with the federal government.
Several months passed, but then on the same day, he was offered two internships, one with NASA in engineering and another with the U.S. Department of the Interior in contracting.
"I thought, 'God, I don't know what to do, please, please, please help me here," Vega said.
Since he had failed in business, Vega decided to accept the internship in contracting.
"I figured I would be exposed to business administration, contracting law, acquisition regulations. I thought maybe I would learn how to make a business profitable," he said.
The internship sent him to Virginia and once again, university, to learn procurement and contracts.
At the Department of Interior he met Katherine Valltos, his knowledgeable supervisor who patiently guided him through all of the training and certifications he would need to become a contract specialist. Ten years post internship, Vega has served at the Departments of Defense, Justice, Commerce and more. Vega has administered contracts for everything from equipment for Soldiers on the battlefield, to surgeries for inmates at federal prisons, to curricula for schools.
Currently, he is serving with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Kandahar, administering contracts for construction projects. The USACE designs and provides construction oversight for military and police facilities that support the transfer of security operations to the Afghans. These facilities provide adequate settings for the Afghan National Security Forces to live, work and train.
"With 10 years of experience in procurement and 13 years in engineering, Hector adds value and accelerates the mission," said Army Lt. Col. Stephen Bales, deputy commander of the Afghanistan Engineer District-South. "He is knowledgeable about engineering and can easily characterize situations, recognize pitfalls and recommend courses of action," he said.
Although Vega is new to contracting as it pertains to large-scale construction projects, he is enthusiastic to be learning something new, he said through a broad smile. Even at age 52, he is eager to gain knowledge and new experiences, he said. In the four months he has been working in Afghanistan, he has tackled a wide-range of contracting issues quite different than he is accustomed to back home.
"The contracting challenges here far exceed any other place I have ever worked," he said.
In a country that has been ravaged by 30 years of war and neglect, it's a steep learning curve for many Afghan companies as they labor to comply with laws and regulations governing everything from scheduling, safety and occupational health, to subcontracting, invoicing and more. Within the bounds of his prescribed authority, Vega educates and informs Afghan contractors about how to do business with the government.
"I begin from a place of cooperation and mutual respect, but I always verify what the contractor is doing and I am vigilant in administering the contract," he said. "Most contractors want to do a good job, they want to do things right, but some contractors do not share our values and we have no choice but to be adversarial."
Vega said he sees contractors as an important stakeholder, a valuable member of a team trying to accomplish something good for the end user.
With eight months remaining before he returns to his usual duty as a contract specialist with the Department of Defense Education Activity in Virginia, Vega expects to learn many more new things, including some Pashto. Eagerly awaiting his safe return is his daughter Lucia, now 18, along with his second wife, Johanna, 42; and his three step children; Johan, 17, Christopher, 13, and Katherine, 12.
Vega met Johanna through his mother, who happened to meet Johanna at church. Joyful family, check. Good job, check. Perhaps God has answered Vega's prayers.