Home | Archive | Subscribe

UNL alumnus Thomas O’Hara has served twice in Iraq as part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ effort to rebuild that country after 30 years of neglect. O’Hara is one of more than 1,000 civilian volunteers for the Corps who have served in Iraq since last year.


An engineering paradise is one way to describe the monumental mission going on in Iraq. Amid the biblically historic backdrops of Babylon, the Garden of Eden, Ur, Ninevah and the cradle of civilization between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, history is being written by engineers from around the world.

Following the liberation of Iraq in 2003, it became readily apparent to those who first landed in the country that the mission ahead was daunting. The electrical infrastructure was in shambles, lumbering to produce 3,200 megawatts (mw) of capacity for an energy starved country of 25 million. Necessary transmission lines and distribution networks had been looted following the war, or had fallen into deterioration after 30 years of neglect under Saddam Hussein.

Other necessary infrastructure also was in shambles. Oil exportation systems were badly damaged and refinery capability to meet domestic needs was at zero. In Baghdad, water and wastewater treatment facilities were nonexistent in many areas. Garbage had piled high in the streets and the only real landfills were poorly located and adjacent to needed aquifers. Most of the Iraqi Ministry buildings that manage these systems had been looted and burned.

Since victory was officially declared in Baghdad April 9, 2003, the most massive engineering and country-rebuilding effort since the Marshall Plan, has been ongoing. As an engineer and journalist, I find it staggering that for some reason this amazing story goes mostly unreported.

As a civilian engineer and public affairs officer, I have visited Iraq twice in the last year, for a total of five months, to participate in the engineering effort by members of the multinational forces and particularly that of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. As part of the Information Operations for the mutlinational force, my responsibilities allow me to cover a wide range of engineering challenges. It is amazing to me the differences that have occurred here in this past year.

Douglas Plachy, Thomas O’Hara and Anthony Risko (from left) are three UNL alumni serving as civilians in Iraq for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part of the $12.6 billion reconstruction program.

Working closely with the Restore Iraqi Electricity Directorate (RIE) of the Gulf Region Division of the Corps, I have witnessed firsthand the dedication of engineers, contractors and construction workers to rebuild, and in some cases build, this country.

Since last fall, nearly 1,400 mw of new capacity has been added to the Iraqi power grid, and the Corps team is on track to add 2,000 mw total by the end of summer—a 67 percent increase in capacity. The capacity for this nation crossed the 5,000 mw plateau July 21—the highest level seen for a generation. Throughout Iraq, a country the size of California, more than 5,300 miles of conductor has been restored, added or improved (enough to transverse the United States twice) in an effort to improve transmission, reliability and redundancy to the power grid. At the Haditha Dam in western Iraq, all six turbines are in full operation and the plant is able to operate at maximum capacity for the first time sine 1990.

As a Husker in Baghdad, I am not alone. Also working with the RIE effort are Douglas Plachy (BS Arch ’83, MS CivE ’86) and Anthony Risko (BS CivE ’85), outgoing and incoming senior program managers.

Creating Economic Viability
In addition to power restoration, countrywide efforts to restore oil exportation and refinery capabilities have been key to long-term economic viability to fund the rebuilding effort. In the past year, we’ve been able to restore oil exports to pre-war levels and Iraq is now capable of exporting nearly 1.8 million barrels, on average, a day as well as generate and refine nearly 50 percent of domestic needs—representing nearly $27 billion a year for the economy.

UNL alumnus Thomas O’Hara (BSEE ’92) poses with members of an elementary school class in the Green Zone. The Corps is involved in restoration of schools throughout the country. The Green Zone school was unofficially adopted by it; Corps families donated school supplies and money.

Most projects create necessary jobs, allowing the Iraqi workforce to improve its skills.

Efforts are underway to install up-to-date water and wastewater distribution and treatment facilities to replace raw sewage trenches.

Ground is being broken on projects in areas of Baghdad that have never had wastewater utility systems. Soon, networks of pipes and pumps in Baghdad will remove rivers of raw sewage currently dumped in open slit trenches in residential neighborhoods. More and more trash and waste is now being collected and stored in properly sighted and maintained landfill systems.

The degree of neglect to utility systems for Iraq is difficult to comprehend unless you visit. The constant drumbeat of the perceived slow pace of this effort is a disservice to those working—often around the clock—and living at the project sites, to bring this country into the 21st century. In addition to infrastructure, engineers have built and renovated thousands of schools, medical clinics, hospitals and other necessary facilities. Currently, the Corps is managing a $12.6 billion program.

Great Diversity
As I travel the roads in Iraq, through villages in the north and south, or fly over farmlands and marsh Arab villages, I am constantly in awe of the diversity of this part of the world and its people. Speaking with the brave Iraqis who work with the new government every day, I am humbled by their courage, passion and patriotism.

For engineers, the constant motivator is the Iraqi people. Day in and day out we meet, interact and are reassured by some of the most truly decent people in the world. And Iraqi engineers are amazing. They are hard working and know what they need to do to build their country. What they have been denied for more than a generation have been the tools, technology and resources to maintain these systems.
Iraqis you see on TV in demonstrations and riots represent only a fraction of the Arab culture—and they are a misrepresentation of its greater society. A significant majority are hardworking citizens who want the same simple freedoms we enjoy in the United States and a safe country in which to raise a family. The incredible challenge of restoring Iraq is balanced by those Iraqis who work to make it happen.
I returned to the United States in July, but truly hope to return to this amazing place, to these amazing people, and again experience this engineer’s paradise.

If you would like to learn more about the rebuilding efforts in Iraq, visit the Gulf Region Division Web page at www.grd.usace.army.mil or the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad at http://iraq.usembassy.gov.