Workers as targets

Time to go local: Allowing for differences matters most for war zone employers

Contractors in Iraq increasingly are hiring local people either to work with or replace their own employees as part of the transition to local control, as well as for the cost savings.

BearingPoint Inc., which helps countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq build financial and economic policy systems, employs a combination of Americans and locals, especially for contracts awarded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, said Lori Bittner, a managing director in the company's emerging markets division.

Because USAID's goal is to foster sustainability in the countries it assists, employing local workers is crucial for projects to survive after U.S. workers pull out.

Artel Inc. started with American workers in Iraq, but now has a staff of four Iraqis in the country working on a subcontract with Technical and Management Services Corp., a subsidiary of St. Louis-based Engineered Support Systems Inc.

"Our government likes that," said William Hoeflinger, Artel's director of network services. "They want to see the transition. ? They want to build an infrastructure that can be supported by Iraqi personnel, so that there can be a sort of seamless transition. That's the goal."

Iraqi employees also are substantially cheaper to employ than are Americans. Hoeflinger said an all-American workforce will not win you contracts.

"It's a reality. No matter how it's evaluated, one of the major factors is cost," he said.

In June 2003, Artel took on its first Iraqi worker, a software developer named Anmar, who later shifted into networking. He was hired to work on the company's contract with the Defense Information Systems Agency to install a voice and data system at the Baghdad Convention Center. Anmar, now 28, recruited other Iraqi IT professionals to work on the project, Hoeflinger said. Anmar's surname has been withheld because of concerns about retaliation by insurgents.

"He was our gem," Hoeflinger said. "Our success is directly laid at his feet."

Anmar, who earns about $45,000 a year, according to Hoeflinger, said the money was only a small part of his decision to risk working for Americans in the Green Zone.

"Even if I had to lose my life, it's only one life, and it's a small price to pay in a war against tyranny, a war against terrorism, a struggle to save millions of lives of Iraqis ? who would continue to be wasted by terrorists," Anmar said.

The risks are real for Anmar. He's had two close calls while on his way to work. Once he dove to the ground while shrapnel from a car bomb near a checkpoint flew overhead. Terrorists opened fire with AK-47 rifles, and American troops returned fire.

A mortar hit near another Green Zone checkpoint made for a second close call, he said.

Finally, one day an insurgent group posted a death threat on Anmar's parents' door because he was working for the Americans. He fled to the Green Zone, where he stayed for a few weeks until he got a visa. Artel helped relocate him to Egypt, where for the past year Anmar has worked in the company's Cairo office.

Anmar said contractors should not become frustrated with their Iraqi workers ? as he has seen happen often in Baghdad ? at what Americans see as a lack of initiative. The attitude is a survival mechanism cultivated over several decades of oppression, in which Iraqis were brought up to follow orders and "just be another cog in the machine."

"On the contrary, you'll find [Iraqis] quite intelligent and very creative, but they require a little encouragement, a little pushing, [and] someone to give them an opportunity to put that creativity to use without getting frustrated when they can't deliver," he said.

That combination of encouragement and restraint has made Artel successful in hiring locals in Iraq and made Hoeflinger a staunch advocate of employing Iraqis.

"We fully recognize the potential talent we have on the ground over there with the local nationals," Hoeflinger said. If you empower them, he said, that encouragement will bear fruit.


William Hoeflinger of Artel Inc. spent six months looking for the right body armor to protect employees working in Iraq.

Rick Steele

"You need to touch base in each step of your deployment process. It doesn't go very well the other way around: calling them," said Robert Dillon, vice president and general manager of General Dynamics Corp.'s Defense Department C2I Solutions unit.

Rick Steele

Retired Army Maj. Gen. Zannie Smith, Anteon's group senior vice president for information systems.

Rick Steele

William Hoeflinger tried for six months to buy basic, black body armor for his employees in Iraq. They would need the armor's protection while traveling around Baghdad and standing in checkpoint lines at the Green Zone, where they would be especially vulnerable to car bombs and shootings.

Camouflage body armor was readily available, but for his Iraqi employees doing contract work for the local IT company, it was a dead giveaway that they worked for Americans, and it associated them with the U.S. Army, Hoeflinger said. But finding standard-issue black body armor in the war zone was impossible.

"The major problem was that manufacturers were only selling to the Defense Department, security firms or police departments," Hoeflinger said.

His workers eventually bought the armor from other contractors who were about to leave Iraq. Hoeflinger, director of network services for Artel Inc., now tells contractors sending workers to Iraq to buy the black body armor in the United States.


Such a mundane but vital piece of information is one of several lessons learned by contractors with experience operating in war zones. Along with personal security considerations, contractors must choose the right employees to send, deal with unusual administrative issues, and take care of employees when they are in the war zone.

About 245 contractors have been killed in Iraq since the invasion in 2003, Hoeflinger said.

[IMGCAP(1)]"That certainly is not being advertised," he said. Even in places that are no longer active war zones, security remains a serious matter for contractors.

"There is still a threat level in Bosnia, Herzegovina and Croatia," Hoeflinger said. "The bombs have stopped falling, but from a terrorist perspective, you're always a target."

The Reston, Va., company provides integrated solutions, information assurance, e-government and managed networks and has work in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Iraq. Artel won a contract from the Defense Information Systems Agency in June 2003 to furnish voice and data communications for the Baghdad Convention Center, where the United States set up headquarters and established the coalition press office.


READY AND WILLING

Finding workers willing to go overseas has not been an issue ? most workers volunteer for deployment, usually from a sense of patriotism, entrepreneurship or adventure, contractors said. Many are former or retired military people who know how to live and operate in war zones, and have the technical expertise and skills needed to do their jobs quickly. Many already have security clearances.


"We have to be ready to deliver on a moment's notice," said Eugene Renzi, senior executive vice president and president of ManTech International Corp.'s defense systems group. "When you're in a war zone, nothing can wait. The people want it, the unit needs it, so you have to get it to them at the right time and the right place and in the right format. You have to be quick."

ManTech of Fairfax, Va., has 322 people deployed in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq, Kosovo and Kuwait, where they support communications and electronic equipment, Renzi said.

Also important is selecting workers who are emotionally stable, Hoeflinger said.

"If you've ever been in a war zone, you have personality disorders. If you [already] have one, it becomes very obvious right away," he said.

During an interview, employees are asked how they would respond to situations they could encounter in a war zone, as well as why they are willing to put their lives on the line, Hoeflinger said. Contractors also try to determine what kind of emotional baggage the employees would bring with them, he said.

Artel, for example, does criminal and financial background checks and contacts references to get as much information as possible about the potential employee. Then the decision "becomes intuitional," Hoeflinger said.


AWASH IN PAPERWORK

After choosing the right employees, companies must get a slew of documents to send workers overseas. In addition to passports, employees need travel orders, base permits, visas, a foreign driver's license and in some cases work permits. All overseas workers must have Defense Base Act insurance.

Other prerequisites, such as access to medical facilities and necessary equipment or chemical and hazardous training, must be written into contracts and in English, said Robert Dillon, vice president and general manager of General Dynamics Corp.'s Network Systems unit, which provides IT and video teleconferencing systems and services to the U.S. government C4ISR community.

Companies also must navigate different tax codes. In countries such as Kuwait, before employees can get a visa, they must have an in-country host company to sponsor them, said David Engstrom, a partner with Unisys Corp.'s U.S. federal group responsible for Defense Department and intelligence activities.

Unisys works for the U.S. government in Southwest Asia, where it maintains a radio frequency identification network, he said. The company has about 40 people in the area, including eight in Kuwait and more than 20 in Iraq.

Most companies have mandatory pre-deployment training and briefings designed to familiarize workers heading to war zones with the demands of their overseas jobs, and the conditions and culture of the country in which they'll be working.

"From an employee standpoint, the biggest challenge is to ensure they are all well-oriented and well-trained, and know exactly what they're going into and what to expect when they get there," said Randy Wills, group vice president of the information systems group at Anteon International Corp., Fairfax, Va.

Anteon has about 40 employees in Iraq and more than 160 in other areas, including Afghanistan, Kuwait and Qatar. Most of the company's employees work on contracts with U.S. Central Command supporting the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, said retired Army Maj. Gen. Zannie Smith, Anteon's group senior vice president for information systems.

[IMGCAP(3)]The company's largest contract for war-zone work is with the Army's 160th Brigade, the signal unit responsible for Army communications across Southwest Asia. The company also provides training and military simulations in Afghanistan and Kuwait, Smith said.

In ManTech's orientation sessions, employees who have experience working in a war zone tell new employees what to expect, how to communicate with their families and what clothes to take, Renzi said.

Unisys runs a six-week training program to teach its technicians how to maintain equipment and RFID sites and how to train others to use the equipment.

All contractors supporting the Army must spend a week at Army Continental United States Replacement centers at Fort Benning, Ga., or Fort Bliss, Texas, Engstrom said. There, the contractors get first-aid training, a medical screening, uniforms and protective clothing, and learn about the host culture, he said.

Contractors in the Middle East, for example, must know that they should not eat or drink in public during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast during daylight hours.

"You didn't walk around in Kuwait with a bottle of water in your hand and stand there and drink [it] or eat a Snickers bar, because it's against the law, and you're being disrespectful to the Kuwaitis and the Muslim people," Engstrom said.


NO PLACE LIKE HOME OFFICE

After workers are in the war theaters, care from the home office must continue, contractors said. Because of job demands, travel time to and from work sites and differences in time zones, communications between the head office and workers in the field can be spotty.

General Dynamics' Dillon said he tells employees to call the home office when they are about to deploy, when it's feasible, and they have the local site commander's approval, and when they arrive at locations.

[IMGCAP(2)]"You need to touch base in each step of your deployment process," he said. "It doesn't go very well the other way around: calling them."

Carol Swan, a managing director of emerging markets at BearingPoint Inc., emphasizes what she calls life support for overseas workers. That means taking care of people's basic needs and offering a means of communication, "so that they're focused on doing their work and not having to focus on where their next meal is coming from, where they are going to sleep, how they are going to contact their families," she said.

The McLean, Va., company is helping develop the financial and economic sectors in Afghanistan and Iraq under contracts from the U.S. Agency for International Development. The company is working in Afghanistan, the Balkans, Iraq and Sudan, and has between 100 and 150 employees throughout those countries, said Swan, who is responsible for the company's operation in Iraq.

Caring for workers' basic needs is crucial in maintaining a workforce in a war zone. In the Middle East, for example, employees work long hours, seven days a week, in an austere environment with extremely high temperatures, ubiquitous dust and sand, and little to do except work, eat and sleep.

"There's a lot that goes into employee care and feeding that, if you don't prepare properly for it, can be very frustrating," Dillon said.

Asked about the most valuable lesson Artel has learned from its experience operating in Iraq, Hoeflinger said: "We can succeed under the most adverse conditions, and that success is directly due to people. People are the key."


Staff Writer Roseanne Gerin can be reached at rgerin@postnewsweektech.com.

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