Iraq internship

Construction student learns life
lessons while working in Iraq

Editor's Note: Below is a first-person account by construction science student Ryan Elkins of his unique internship in Iraq with KRB Engineering.


I stepped off of the plane and took a deep breath. I had been traveling for close to 15 hours, and I was hungry and tired. We arrived in Dubai early in the morning for a three-day layover. We would then be sent to Camp Anaconda in Balad, Iraq.

For the past two weeks, I had been processing and training in Houston. I had to pass physicals, Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical training, personality tests, and pass a background check performed by the United States Government. It was a long two weeks, and I was ready for the adventure of a lifetime.

Upon arrival at Camp Anaconda, we were lined up in military fashion and briefed by the U.S. Army right there on the runway. We were then loaded into a truck and taken to the KBR camp. It was a strange feeling, arriving in Iraq. Even just flying into Iraq sent a chill up my spine. I didn’t know what to expect, and the only information I had came from CNN. I was excited until I found out that I would be living in a tent and sleeping on a cot for the next four months. As if that wasn’t bad enough, there were 12 people just in my one tent. I adjusted quickly to the scene, and started to really enjoy my new home — Camp Anaconda!

The project controls team was a four-person crew, consisting of one Aggie. I hit it off with them really quick, and started to learn the process within a few hours of my first day. They were wonderful teachers, and I found learning easy and interesting. At first I was taught how to cost code a requisition. The process is, anyone can write-up a requisition, but then it must go through the right channels. It passes through a few departments before we receive it, but when we do, we put the cost code on it. All cost must be passed through project controls and must receive a cost code. Basically, this tells finance and accounting where to take the money from when they bill the government. Our estimators, who are also part of project controls, put together a “Rough Order of Magnitude” form, which estimates how much we will bill the government in a given period of time. We have to check all requisitions against the ROM, and write down if the item was or was not found in the ROM. Then we have to determine if there is enough money in the ROM for the material. The army sets guidelines where requisitions over certain amounts must be checked by the ACO for approval. All of this is spelled out in a simple code of numbers and letters. An example of a cost code from Anaconda for the purchase of a vehicle would look like this: GU84 0559AA16 55301 Y-NA

After I had become more familiar with requisitions and coding, it was time for me to learn how to enter these costs into the database. Our database was run using Microsoft Access, and was fairly easy to learn. I was taught who, what, and where this database was used, and what it did to help us. If you mess up in the database, you only get one chance at the end of every week to catch it. At the end of every week, the files are sent from every site in Iraq to the headquarters in Baghdad. They are then compiled all together to form one master database, then are redistributed to every site. You replace your “dbase” with the master, and the process starts over again. Bad coding and bad database entry can lead to overcharging the government, and if you watch the news you would know that this has happened several times.

After I was comfortable with every aspect of the job, I was sent to Mosul to cover for a guy on R&R. I was the only project controls representative there, and had no other help. Not only did this build my confidence, but this also was a great learning experience. I was forced to learn every detail about my job, and I interacted with a large number of people everyday. It was a great two weeks and then I returned back to Anaconda. Since we are in the business of cost coding, we also had the responsibility of checking all timesheet codes before they went to F&A to be processed. Timesheets had to be in by midnight every Saturday night, so we usually stayed pretty late every week.

I loved my co-workers and I loved my job, but let’s not forget, I am still in a war-zone. Sleep and work was constantly interrupted by mortar and rocket attacks, and I had to get used to sleeping with the sounds of Black Hawks flying overhead all night. If this was not bad enough, who wants to go home, when home is a cot next to Billy Bob the truck driver? I think that these will be the hardest accommodations that I will ever have to face. I gained a respect for the military that I never had before. I always appreciated our military and I have always been proud of what they do, but I now see what military life is like, and I have a deeper respect.

I came into the Theater of Operations alone and I was forced to make friends all over again. There was no comfort zone for me when I first arrived. This was a true test of my character and the way I interacted with people. Everyone works a minimum of 12 hours a day and seven days a week, so there are a lot of attitudes. I had to learn to control my temper no matter how I slept, or didn’t sleep, the night before, and no matter if I had taken a warm shower in a week or not. Sometimes people do something to set you off and, even though what they did wasn’t that bad, you release all of your stress and anger out on them. This happened all of the time because of the stress level, and many people couldn’t take it. It was a true test of character, and I passed with flying colors. I learned to leave my attitude at the door when I entered the office. Everyone was always on the edge, and it didn’t take much to set most people off.

One of the best lessons that I learned was to not take things for granted. Everyone says this all of the time, but it usually takes some instance, usually bad, to make people believe it. Returning to the States will be like a vacation for me. For the last three months I have slept on a cot, shared 10 showers with 1,400 people, gone weeks without hot water to bathe in and cold water to drink, eaten MRE’s three times a day, had laundry lost or stolen, lived out of a bag for weeks at a time, slept in freezing temperatures with a broken heater, slept in very hot temperatures with a broken air conditioner, worked over 90 hours a week for three months straight, been forced to work all day wearing a flak jacket and a Kevlar helmet, spent hours upon hours in bunkers because of constant mortar and rocket attacks, and last but not least, done all of this while thousands of miles away from all of my friends and family. I think that I have truly been tested as a person, and I feel good about the outcome.

I don’t regret taking this certain internship at all. In fact, it has inspired me to work internationally after I graduate. I actually wouldn’t mind coming back into Iraq. My eyes have been open to different people and different cultures all over the world. America is relatively small when compared to the rest of the globe, and I am glad that I got to venture outside of the lines. It has left me thirsting for more, and I plan on extending my international education. I have made a difference in people’s lives and helped out in building a democracy for a country that has been suppressed for years and years. Operation Iraqi Freedom will soon be in textbooks, and young children will learn about what Americans did in Iraq in the early 21st Century. I take a sense of pride in knowing that I contributed a small part to this project, and will hold dear the lessons that I learned while in Iraq. This was a life-changing experience for me, and I feel blessed every day that I got this opportunity. I am truly a better person!

- The End -

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