Tales from the front lines
- By Doug Beizer
- Jun 22, 2007
Iraqi police commandos guard the Finance Ministry building in Baghdad, where five British contractors were kidnapped in May.
Like any information technology support person, Ryan Loving lugs around a laptop PC, a BlackBerry and other tools necessary to keep his customers' systems up and running.
But Loving's current assignment requires more equipment than the norm. He also travels with body armor, a Kevlar helmet and a backpack full of clothes.
Loving is an operations manager for General Dynamics Corp.'s IT unit and is in Southwest Asia supporting the Army's medical system that, among other things, creates and maintains electronic records.
Loving and two of his General Dynamics colleagues recently spoke to Washington Technology about life as deployed contractors and the work the company is doing in support of the Army's Medical Communications for Combat Casualty Care.
"I'm hanging in there," Loving told us during a few minutes of downtime while in Mosul in northern Iraq. "I'm calling on a BlackBerry from Iraq. It has a tendency to cut out every now and again, but hopefully it won't."
The Army has several hundred medical facilities spread across Southwest Asia that rely on the IT system to capture records and link all levels of care provided to soldiers.
General Dynamics of Falls Church, Va., delivers those systems to Army medical facilities and supports people like Loving who install and maintain them and train military personnel in how to use them.
That means traveling to wherever they are needed.
"Everything is basically by military air," Loving said, noting that he and his colleagues travel through war zones by various fixed-wing and rotary aircraft. "It all depends on what part of the country that you're going to."
As an operations manager, Loving is often on the move, working with Army command or site leads to complete projects and other tasks.
In 2005, as a systems administrator, he was assigned to the Army's 3rd Infantry Division and later to the 101st Airborne Division.
"When I was first here with the 3rd Infantry Division, I ran around to [about] 25 different forward operating bases and supported about 37 medical facilities," he said.
An average week meant hoping on a helicopter and flying to a location for a two- or three-day job. That could mean setting up a facility, providing some training or performing some other task.
"I just kind of show up with my stuff and they provide lodging for me," he said.
Sometimes that means living and working in a building or trailer, and at other times it's a tent.
Once he makes it to a forward operating base, or FOB, Loving lives like the soldiers. He eats at their dining facilities, called DFACs, and shops at the PX for supplies.
As for sleeping arrangements, he has slept on the ground, concrete floors, benches and cots. Occasionally, he gets a nice mattress in a trailer with a TV, Internet and phone.
"I've gone from the worst to the best ? living the high life with a nice comforter one day, then sleeping on a cot in the middle of nowhere under the stars the next," Loving said.Safety is relative
Stephen Smith has done two tours in Iraq for General Dynamics. He is a former Air Force medic who did a short combat tour in Bosnia. Having served in the armed forces, like most of General Dynamics' deployed contractors, has helped him fit in with the Army medical community.
He's been to Mosul and Tall'Afar in northern Iraq supporting the 3/2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team and as far south as Bucca supporting the 10th and 28th Combat Support Hospitals.
Smith learned quickly that although contractors aren't exposed to the same risks as soldiers, Iraq is still a dangerous place.
"My reality check came on the very first day I arrived in Iraq," he said.
He landed in northern Iraq and met the individual he was sent to replace. They were waiting on the flight line for their ride to pick them up. They sat down about 20 yards from T barriers ? 15-foot-high concrete barriers ? that divided the flight line from the passenger terminal. Within 15 minutes, four insurgent rockets slammed into the opposite side of the T barrier from where they were sitting. The explosion rocked the terminal and the Combat Support Hospital's emergency room next to them. Neither was damaged thanks to the concrete barriers.
"That was my first 15 minutes in Iraq, and I thought: 'It can't get much worse, could it?'" he said.
The risk to contractors does not compare to what active-duty soldiers face, Smith said. Contractors have more say in what kind of risk they expose themselves to, but soldiers do not have that choice.
"If the security risk is elevated, contractors have the option to wait out traveling to remote locations until conditions become 'safe,'" he said.At home and abroad
General Dynamics' Frank Hale did a tour in Afghanistan but was also dispatched to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
The two experiences were similar, he said.
"The important thing from my perspective is to get the computer hardware and software set up so the medical professionals can document the work," Hale said.
Documenting the work means patients receive accurate medical records, leading to better care. General Dynamics' work and the medical records system should greatly improve the military's ability to quickly diagnose and treat soldiers' illnesses, he said.
Whether overseas or in the field at home, the relationship between the military and contractors is what makes the system work, Hale said.
He said he believes contractor employees are well-received and that their military customers are pleased to have someone to share the workload.
"Almost all of the contractors I know have either been in the military or are a retiree, and I think that helps out," he said. "We are given some of the same privileges soldiers are in that we can shop at the PX and also obtain medical treatment if needed while deployed."
Being a contractor means Hale can focus on one technical area and learn it inside and out.
"I didn't see that aspect while I was in the military because you generally have to be a jack-of-all-trades and aren't afforded usually the most adequate amount of time to obtain a skill set on a given task," he said.
For the most part, Hale said he felt safe while deployed, although one helicopter ride from Kandahar, Afghanistan, to an outlying base served to remind him of where he was working.
"We flew low and slow, and I was sitting at the tail end of the Chinook helicopter," he said. "I was startled a bit when the door gunners test-fired their 50-caliber machine guns. That was my first flight, and I really thought they were shooting at somebody hostile. I was pulled back down to reality when the person sitting to my right reassured me that they were only test-firing their weapons."Staff writer Doug Beizer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Washington Technology.