For many engineers, going from job site to job site doesn’t require the same amount of foresight as it does for Col. Vincent Quarles MSE ‘97, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Afghanistan Engineer District-South 12.
“Planning is absolutely necessary to successfully delivering completed facilities in Afghanistan,” Quarles said a recent interview conducted by email. “We can’t stop for fast food along the way. We can’t stop at a hardware store to pick up nails or a new tape measure. We can’t rely on adequate electricity or restroom facilities. Everything we need, we must bring with us. And if our vehicles break down, we can’t just pull over and call a mechanic.”
Quarles began his military career at the age of 17 as a cannon fire direction specialist. Since then, he has held numerous active duty assignments, from platoon leader early in his career to twice being a brigade-level commander. He was named to his current position with the USACE in July.
“I have been here for a little more than three months and am learning something new every day. Afghanistan is a country of contrasts — there is incredible beauty and unimaginable poverty,” Quarles said. “I have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of people. It is incredibly humbling and satisfying to work with and for the people of Afghanistan.”
The district Quarles commands oversees 126 projects that totally nearly $2 billion across three categories. The Afghan National Security Forces projects are for the Afghan National Army and National Police and include completing operating bases, training ranges, hospitals and police compounds. The group also works on projects for the Afghanistan Sustainable Development Program – constructing roads, water and power infrastructure and more – along with general U.S. military construction on airfields, barracks, medical facilities, etc.
While all engineering work requires problem solving, building in Afghanistan provides a unique set of challenges.
“One of the biggest issues we face in here is logistics,” Quarles said. “Afghanistan is a land-locked country in the middle of a war, so shipping items takes longer and is more dangerous. Long-lead items, those items that require manufacturing or shipping from the U.S. or Europe, can easily put our projects behind schedule if the contractor delays ordering.
“However, we are always looking for more efficient and sustainable ways to design and construct. For instance, we incorporated austere design standards to maximize the use of locally available materials, simplify construction, and result in buildings that will be easier to maintain.”
In addition to using local materials, Quarles and his team does significant work with the locals. USACE employs an “Afghan First” program designed to utilize Afghan-owned and operated enterprises. The idea behind the program is to create long-term stability, security and economic development. The group also works directly with many Afghan engineers – described by Quarles as a critical part of his team’s family – who function as quality assurance representatives on project sites.
Despite only serving in his current position for a short amount of time, Quarles has already found the experience to be incredibly rewarding.
“Every day we have an opportunity to mentor Afghan engineers and teach safety and solid construction techniques to workers who come to Afghanistan from India, Pakistan, Philippines, Egypt, Turkey and other countries,” Quarles saaid. “It is satisfying when we finish projects here because we meet current requirements while building capacity for Afghanistan’s long-term future.
“I just attended a ceremony recognizing newly-trained Afghan facility engineers. These men now perform operations and maintenance on facilities that the United States and our coalition partners constructed. USACE provided this critical training so that these engineers would have the skills necessary to maintain and repair electrical and plumbing systems, perform preventative maintenance, and keep the buildings useful for years to come. The sense of accomplishment on the faces of the Afghan engineers is a memory I will always carry with me.”
— Caroline Barnhill ’05