Watching media coverage of Iraq did not prepare U.S. Army Command Sgt. Major Benny Hubbard for what he'd see on his deployment there last April. As the senior enlisted leader for the U.S. Corps of Engineers for nine of the eighteen provinces in Iraq, Hubbard instead discovered a "positive news story." In areas from Basrah to the Sunni triangle, the Corps has worked with Iraqis to complete over 1,000 projects in a war zone. These projects include smaller efforts such as schools to the first children's cancer hospital and a $235 million water treatment plant.
Hubbard has 23 years in service and plans to return from Iraq in April. He called from Tallil in southern Iraq to speak with Tribune correspondent MyLinh Shattan.
Tell us about your assignment? I'm from Mississippi and deployed with the U.S. Corps of Engineers last April. I've been in 23 years as an engineer and through college had a stint in ROTC as an engineer. I had a chance to come over with the Corps of Engineers and I didn't know what the job would be. When I got here I found the mission was wholly different from what I saw on television, though I try not to watch CNN, Fox, and other media outlets. Most everyone you see on television, they're the ones knocking in doors; the Corps' job is to put the door back on the hinges and build infrastructure for Iraqis.
I deal with a lot of civilians, Iraqi associates as well as military. We're in charge of and employ 220 people in Tallil, Iraq. Of those, we employ 120 Iraqis and 100 military and/or civilian. They're the project managers for infrastructure in the Corps, the construction agent for infrastructure in Iraq. We have nine provinces in south.
We have a positive story to tell and sometimes people don't listen to that and want to know the bad things. Over the past three years, we've had 1,400 projects, not including projects on base. We're down to 300 projects in three years. Building 1,400 projects in a war zone is a little different than building on a base. We're providing a lot of good stuff for the Iraqi community, which includes schools, one of my favorites. My wife is a schoolteacher and I have three school-aged children, a son and two daughters. So I like the schools.
We're turning projects over daily. Projects also include hospitals, roads, police stations, courthouses or any type of infrastructure to improve.
What are the top projects on that list of 1,400? The top three in south Iraq include the $235 million Nasiriyah water treatment plant which serves and provides clean drinking water in these communities, the Nasiriyah drainage pump station is another large project, and all the schools together.
Another is Project Hope with Mrs. Bush and the Basrah Children's Hospital, which is an oncology hospital for children with cancer. We get a lot of visitors, a lot of senators there. It's a great project to treat children that normally wouldn't get treatment.
How does the engineering process work? We work side by side with coalition forces. We employ Iraqi engineers from day one, to do quality control, to build to the specifications. It's easier to turn it over. Each government and province provides wish lists of what Iraqis want. We go in and see what kind of things we can do. Preconstruction phase, we charge a contract out. We may use American contractors but most of the workers are Iraqi people in local communities building their roads, their schools. It works, because they're doing it themselves. I see a small minority that doesn't agree, but not the majority. Local sheiks work hand in hand and they want what's best for their people.
How are you received by the Iraqis? I didn't know what to expect. I got to my first meeting and they had open arms, shook hands, hugged, and were excited about helping out as much as possible and providing security as much as they can. There's a small minority out there that don't understand but they're very receptive. They want this quality of life we're trying to provide for them. They want the same thing I want for my children.
What did you learn from this deployment? The biggest thing is there's a positive side that wasn't getting communicated. Certainly I wasn't seeing it. We're doing things over here that need to be done like building infrastructure. We can build it up to speed, like our projects in America. It's been very enlightening, seeing we're making a difference. And, there are people here that really want us here.
The Tribune arranges the Voices From The Front interviews with service members through U.S. Central Command. Tribune correspondent MyLinh Shattan can be reached at email@example.com.