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Contracting for 180 days in the combat zone

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Joseph Borello
  • 6th Contracting Squadron
Contracting is a career field that does not get lot of attention.

Most people are not able to identify what contracting professionals actually do. The majority of individuals just assume contracting professionals are hired to make deliveries or perform some type of service for the government. In fact, many people outside of the career field incorrectly refer to us as contractors. Simply put, contracting professionals acquire supplies and services for the government. The supplies and services we purchase promote business competition, lower costs, create jobs and bolster local economies while satisfying a government objective. There is a high demand for contracting specialists, particularly because of our ability to procure items for the government anywhere in the world. The fact we are in a 1:1 deployment-to-dwell ratio confirms contracting officers are needed globally. Currently, the majority of contracting taskings are to Afghanistan where the mission is to support the Afghan National Army as well as our very own troops. It is in this capacity where my experience unfolds.

Although it's been more than a year since I was selected for this deployment, my memories are still very fresh. I received the tasking in the first week of July 2010. I remember it because I had just been notified I would be attending the NCO Academy. I was coming off the excitement of being selected as I was just a back-up/alternate in case somebody scheduled to go would not be able to make it. It was a few days later I was tasked to fulfill a deployment to Camp Eggers, Afghanistan. Initially, two worries came to mind. As a husband and father, I was worried about leaving my family for 180 days. There would be holidays, birthdays and my wedding anniversary I would miss. This would be the first time that I would not be with my family for significant events. Additionally, I was nervous about deploying to a location I had never been. I knew preparation for my deployment was going to be crucial. I also realized my preparation was going to be cut short due to the academy. Once I received contact information for my turnover, I immediately opened communication. I relayed travel plans, itineraries, work experience, contact information, etc. Most importantly, I asked several questions. How safe was the camp? What are some of the important things I should bring? What are some of the lessons learned? To me, these were questions that needed to be answered. I maintained the open lines of communication until the day I arrived in country. Being prepared for what lay ahead was of the utmost importance. However, it was equally important that my unit was prepared for me as well.

As I arrived in country and fulfilled my deployment time, the thing that helped me the most throughout the entire situation was taking comfort in the support system my family had back at home. My first sergeant checked-in with my wife and me regularly. My pastor made a habit of visiting my household. Friends came over and watched my kids so my wife could enjoy herself, if only for a few hours. Wives of individuals I worked with back at home station would frequently get together. I have a neighbor that provided maintenance to my lawn while I was away. Having friends and family offer you a helping hand when you need it most is truly priceless. The people closest to me made my deployment effortless, to say the least. It was terrible being away from my family for so long, but I was at peace in knowing that my family was well cared for. This allowed me to focus on my mission.

My main mission on my deployment was to support the Afghanistan National Army. Specifically, I was charged with establishing communication networks at remote and isolated parts of the country. There are camps in Afghanistan that rely only on sophisticated and expensive cell phones for communication. This definitely needed to change especially with the ANA taking over some of the border locations for security purposes. As the mission expanded for the ANA, a need for a more reliable communication network (i.e. computers, telephones, video teleconference, etc.) was necessary. A network capable of efficient and reliable data interchange would be an absolute priority. We mainly contracted with local companies to make this happen.

There were several challenges faced when contracting in Afghanistan. According to the CIA World Fact Book, there is only a 28 percent literacy rate for the native language. The statistic is even more troubling when you think about even less people being able to read and write in english. There were many times contractors did not understand our requirements or specifications and supplied something completely different than what was required.

The problem with the language barrier is exasperated when educating local businesses on our Federal Acquisition Regulations. The FAR is the contracting specialists' number one tool. It contains regulation on how to properly contract in a contingency environment. One of the main topics in the FAR is contract competition requirements. Many Afghan companies were not familiar with the correct way to compete for government contracts.

True contract competition keeps prices low, increases quality and encourages innovative practices. Often I would find Afghan companies colluding with other companies on pricing. An example of this would be if Company A teamed up with Company B to gain an advantage over Company C. Although this may seem harmless, these types of practices compromise the integrity of a full and open competition process.

In order to preserve competition, we provided several training seminars. These training opportunities were geared toward educating contractors on our proposal evaluation procedures and how to draft complete and competitive proposals. It was also an effort to build relationships with the local community. Our ultimate objective was to ensure everyone was treated fairly.

This experience not only helped me grow as a leader, but it helped educate me on the Afghan culture.

Overall, this deployment was a great learning experience for me. Not everything goes as planned, but as long as you do the hard work up front by making preparations and establishing the lines of communication, you can take comfort in knowing you did everything you could to make the deployment a success. I have the privilege of working everyday with people that care about me and my family. These are the individuals that should be given all the credit for what I have accomplished.

The entire experience was frustrating at times and I was faced with seemingly impossible circumstances, but the support system coupled with several awesome mentors allowed me to get the job done to the best of my ability. Overall, my experiences definitely made me a better Airman.