Survival Guide: Gerrit le Grand, business development manager for Northrop Grumman Mission Systems

Gerrit le Grand

Courtesy of Gerrit le Grand

Gerrit le Grand, 61, has supported the U.S. military throughout his career. The business development manager for Northrop Grumman Mission Systems in Carson, Calif., made several trips to Kuwait in 2002 and 2003.

There, he led the team that built command centers at Camp Doha and Camp Arifjan, and worked with the team that installed Blue Force Tracking in the centers and in more than 2,000 combat vehicles.

Blue Force Tracking is a system of rugged computer hardware and software that forms a wireless "tactical Internet" on the battlefield.

Washington Technology staff writer Gail Repsher Emery talked with le Grand about working under deadline pressure in dangerous places.

WT: How important was Blue Force Tracking to the military during the war in Iraq?

le Grand: It allowed the friendly forces to see each other. They could maneuver in dust storms, at night ? in all weather conditions. They could coordinate the battle, and they could communicate digitally. It also helped prevent friendly fire. In my opinion, if Jessica Lynch had had Blue Force Tracking, she probably wouldn't have gotten lost.

WT: I'm sure that fact hasn't been lost on the military.

le Grand: No. Network-centric warfare, as we call it today, is now on the forefront of everyone's mind. The services want to develop a joint capability for Blue Force Tracking. I believe that was a direct result of Operation Iraqi Freedom. We gave it to the Marine Corps, the United Kingdom brigades and the Army. It was a tremendous success. It doesn't mean the system was perfect, but it was reliable and easy to use. Soldiers could put away their paper maps and use the touch-screen capability, issue text messages to one another and track each other's locations. The biggest limitation was that we didn't have enough time to give it to more vehicles.

WT: What was it like working in Kuwait?

le Grand: It was hot ? 135 degrees ? and dusty, and we were under force-protection rules because of snipers on the road. We had a 12-man tent with standard Army cots, and the showers were about 150 yards away in a tent. We couldn't shower until two in the morning. We worked until then most of the time, and at two in the morning the showers were free. They are very primitive circumstances. It's quite a job to keep your spirits up and stay on top of things.

WT: How did you keep your spirits up?

le Grand: Your job becomes your life when you are over there. It's a camaraderie that can't compare to anything we have here in the U.S. That's probably what keeps your spirits up the most.

WT: How did physical stress affect your ability to do your job?

le Grand: You pump so much adrenaline when you're over there that you don't worry about it. You are under threat of your life, but you don't think about it.

WT: What's the scariest thing that happened to you?

le Grand: Going home from Camp Arifjan, about 20 miles from the Saudi border. I left camp at 3 a.m. It was raining buckets, and the entire desert had turned into a lake. You couldn't see anything. The only thing that saved me was the people who had run off the road before me. It was like a finger pointing the way to the main highway.

A great number of contractors on the battlefield were exposed to a lot more danger than I was. When I was in Kuwait, two contractors were attacked near Camp Doha; one was killed and one was wounded. We were on our way to camp that morning, but I cancelled the trip to work on some equipment. We were very lucky to cancel that trip.

WT: Have you had similar experiences in other places?

le Grand: Never where I was that close to the war front or living with the soldiers.

WT: Would you do it again?

le Grand: Oh, yeah. It's very satisfying to do something that really makes a difference, where you feel you are really relevant. It's really important for all of us to feel that way. I knew that because of the short time we had to deploy all this, I could make a difference. In Arifjan, we had to get the command center system installed by the 20th of January, and we got the money on the 21st of November. We estimated initially it would take at least three months. We were working 16 to 18 hours a day, except Christmas Day and New Year's Day. On January 4th, we took off for Kuwait with a 747 full of gear. We finished installation on the 20th. I think the advance staff was very impressed.

WT: What other projects have you worked on in support of the military?

le Grand: I worked for Electronic Systems Laboratories in Sunnyvale, Calif., in the 1980s, where we built a communications direction finding and jamming system for the Army, one of the first that was digitally equipped. It was called Quickfix. Before that, I worked in electronic warfare for the Air Force and for the Navy, with Textron and then with Loral. We built the first digital radar warning systems for warplanes that flew in Vietnam; they warned of anti-aircraft batteries.

WT: How does your work in Kuwait and Iraq compare to those other jobs?

le Grand: What I did for Operation Iraqi Freedom probably tops it all. I could see the real application of technology to a war effort and what it did in terms of saving lives and shortening the war. This was really a highlight in my career, to take on the program management position for the command centers we built at Doha and Arifjan.

WT: What did you think of Iraq?

le Grand: I was there for four days. I think the Iraqis are 99 percent friendly to Americans. They want their country back and their economy back, and they look to us to help them.

The people have been repressed for so long. It's going to take a long time to bridge the cultural divide. Even though they have all the Western technologies and conveniences ? washing machines, satellite TVs ? they are still an ancient culture.

There are reminders of what Saddam Hussein was like all over the place. His statue is everywhere. They've taken a lot of them down, but in the palaces you can see what a megalomaniac he was and how he enveloped himself in luxury while the rest of the country was suffering.

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