The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, May 25, 2007

Booming out to Baghdad…Michigan tradesmen play key role in building U.S. embassy in Iraq

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

A contingent of building tradesmen from Michigan are truly putting the "journey" in journeyman, working 7,000 miles from home constructing a $592 million embassy complex on 104 acres.

And it's not just any embassy: it's located in Baghdad, Iraq, in the midst of the longest and largest U.S. military operation since the Vietnam War.

Many of the Michigan Hardhats arrived in Baghdad last Thanksgiving weekend as part of a contingent that's constructing the secrecy-shrouded U.S. embassy in the "Green Zone," a three-mile-long, half-mile-wide cordoned-off area that houses the major base of coalition military operations in Iraq.

The U.S. embassy is moving toward completion, and Michigan tradespeople had a lot to do with its construction. According to union construction workers we talked to, about half of the 70 tradespeople remaining on the job as of mid-May were union Hardhats from Michigan - and the percentage was even higher several months ago.

How did that happen?

If you guess that limited opportunities for work in our state has been a factor, you would be correct, although there were other reasons. The pay varies by craft, with 70 hours per week virtually guaranteed.

More than a year ago, one of the higher-ups in the U.S. State Department learned that Michigan might be fertile ground for recruiting workers to build the embassy, and approached several union locals about seeing if workers would be willing to go to Baghdad. A number of tradesmen accepted the offer, and have spent the last six months of their lives in the capitol of the most dangerous country on Earth, for Americans.

We obtained phone numbers for three of those workers, and each were surprisingly easy to get ahold of, all things considered. We talked to three foremen, Tom Donahue, 60, of Milford, a 42-year member of Sheet Metal Workers Local 80; Mike Woodley, 62, of Port Huron, an un-retired 40-year member of IBEW Local 58, and Bill Packer, 35, of Grosse Ile, a seven-year member of Pipe Fitters Local 636.

Following is their take on working, eating, sleeping and "recreation" in Baghdad First we asked them the question they say everyone asks:

Why would you go to Baghdad?

Donahue said he was laid off and looking for work when the opportunity arose to work on the embassy. "It was what you might call a challenge," Donahue said, "to see whether you could do it. Everybody says 'you've got to be crazy to go over there.' My oldest son calls and sometimes asks if I'm alright. I say, 'alright from what?' "

Woodley said a Local 80 business agent asked if I'd be interested, and I was," Woodley said. "I was interested in the challenge. For myself, the money wasn't a factor. For others, it was."

Packer said he's with a group that he's worked with for a few years. "The money played a part but it wasn't a motivating factor," the former Marine said. "I was excited to have the opportunity to work with people I know in building a U.S. embassy." He said working in Baghdad may open the door to other opportunities to build future U.S. installations overseas. Once workers pass the extensive background checks, that valuable clearance stays with them anywhere in the world, Packer said.

Getting there: The first leg is a commercial flight from Detroit to Kuwait. Then a military flight to the Baghdad airport. Then came a 3 a.m. ground ride to the Green Zone in a convoy via an armored "Rhino" personnel carrier. Helicopter air support was provided. No one reported any incidents. "When we were riding to the Green Zone I kind of wondered what I had gotten myself into," Donahue said. "When I look back on it, it wasn't bad."

Going to work: They technically work for the Kasemen Co. Packer said. He said a division of the U.S. State Department, Overseas Building Operations, supervises construction. "The job is generally run the same way as in the U.S." Donahue said, "except we are actually individual subcontractors ourselves." He said each worker reports to the foreman of his craft.

Most journeymen bring their tools on the trip. Larger items like pipe threaders are provided. Woodley, the electrician foreman, said materials were readily available, but shipped to the job site in secure, diplomatic containers. He said on-the-job practices were similar to those in Michigan - while some "requirements" that he would not specify "were outside the industry norm." Security was tight, with materials kept under lock and key. The embassy is a multiple-story, highly secure building.

Overall, each tradesman praised the construction process, their supervisors, and their co-workers. Donahue said as far as he could tell their portion of the embassy job was done 90-95 percent union, and there have been only very minor injuries on the job. A Kuwaiti firm managed a larger portion of the embassy work.

"I have no complaints at all," Woodley said. Added Donahue: "Everything has been taken care of. It's been a very well-organized job." Said Packer: "It's been positive for me."

Steve Sutton, the Local 80 BA who helped arrange the trip for the sheet metal workers, said the trades are earning a "significant" wage over the scale in Michigan, plus fringes. "I'm really proud that the government came to the unions for workers, because they came to us specifically because of our productivity," he said.

Sleeping, eating and entertainment: Foremen get their own trailer; two journeymen share a single trailer. They were reported as being comfortable.

What limited recreation they have includes pool and ping-pong in the villa. "We hang out on Saturday nights and have a barbeque on Sunday," Packer said. Sunday is their only day off. "There's not much to do when we're not working, we usually just pull up benches and shoot the bull."

The food is good (and free), but the eating schedules are regimented. Bus transportation takes workers to mess halls in the Green Zone. Workers rub elbows at the tables with U.S. soldiers and support personnel as well as those from various other nations. A Subway and Burger King are also available. A PX (which is like a grocery store) is available to buy sundry items, and there are shops to buy clothes.

"Most of the soldiers are just kids, and they're great," Donahue said. "We talk to them all the time and get along very well."

A small watering hole was recently closed down in the Green Zone after it was mentioned in a Time Magazine article. Alcohol is available for purchase, but in limited quantities.

As the world turns: The good news is that tradesmen have access to cable television and the Internet. The bad news: There are more than 100 cable channels available, "but only three of them are English language," Woodley said. "None of them is from the U.S. The news we get from the U.S. is mostly from the headlines on the Internet." Tradesmen have their own phone numbers, but they can only receive calls. The mail system works well.

The ties that bind: Working in a war zone 7,000 miles from home seems to bring the workers together.

"Originally a large percentage of workers our here was from Michigan, but it's about half right now, and we're getting people from all over the U.S." said Woodley. "We're a pretty tight crew - way more than you'd see on a normal job. We're together all the time, we work together, we ride the bus together, we eat together. We look out for one another."

Donahue added: "A few spark plugs in the bunch keep everybody together. People are away from their families, but everybody is really nice to each other, and it's amazing how we've meshed together."

Donahue and Woodley are divorced, with older children. Packer is unmarried but has a girlfriend back home. Packer said tradesman are mostly older with grown kids or younger with no kids - but there are a number of workers who have younger children, who are working in Iraq because they need the money.

Missing family members was mentioned as the number one difficulty. "I miss my kids, my family, seeing them and talking to them in person," Donahue said.

The Green Zone: Construction workers building the embassy might be described as living in a bubble. "I've been in Baghdad six months and have never left the Green Zone," Donahue said, which was the case for all three workers we talked to.

Security in the zone is in the eye of the beholder. Sirens are turned on sometimes to "warn you there may be a problem in your area," Donahue said. Still, "I don't think workers here have felt threatened. Security is very well thought-out. It's possible something may happen, but so far, so good."

The nearly completed embassy, he said "is one of the safest places you can be."

There are concrete shelters scattered in the zone, which are used with some regularity. Woodley and Packer said explosions are heard outside the Green Zone walls on a daily basis. Donahue reported a "number of duck-and-cover incidents" when explosions have hit inside the Green Zone.

"Things are heating up a bit, but we're still safe," Packer said. "You can see that everybody has a different comfort level. The thing about our situation, we have no contract, so you can leave today. You can be home in three days. A lot of guys just say they've had enough and they're out of here by 6 p.m. the same day."

Packer added: "People at home will tell us they watch the news and they see the violence going on in Iraq, but they don't distinguish what's going on out there with what's going on here in the Green Zone. For the most part, that stuff doesn't happen inside here."

Donahue commented on the city inside the Green Zone. "The buildings, the architecture, the date palms… it's an awesome city, from what I can see. You see all this and wonder why these people want to kill each other."

Weather-wise, the Michiganians arrived at the best time possible in Iraq. Wintertime temperatures were said to be like springtime temperatures here. But rains turn the soil "into some of the worst mud you've ever seen," Woodley said. And now comes the summer: last week, the 100-degree temperatures had already kicked in, and a fine-powdered dust was in the air. They have been told Iraq experiences 130-degree temperatures in the summer.

The embassy: Construction of the complex is said to be the only on-time project going on in Iraq. News reports (there is very little official U.S. government information about the embassy) say the complex will be a self-sustaining cluster of 21 buildings reinforced to 2.5 times usual standards. It is said to be the most secure diplomatic embassy in the world, anticipating a day when the Green Zone walls no longer exist.

More than 1,000 U.S. government officials who will work there will have access to a gym, swimming pool, barber and beauty shops, a food court and a commissary. There will also be a Marine barracks, a school, locker rooms, a warehouse, a vehicle maintenance garage, and six apartment buildings with a total of 619 one-bedroom units.

Water, electricity and sewage treatment plants will all be independent from Baghdad's city utilities.

After six months in Iraq: "I've been impressed with what I've seen," Donahue said "I didn't have high expectations going in, and I certainly didn't think things would be as good as they've been. But six months is long enough for me, I'm ready to go home for some R and R."

Woodley said he's coming home for two weeks at the end of May, and will then return to the embassy to see it through to completion for another three months or so. "I do miss my kids, and the green grass, and flying," said Woodley, a pilot. "Phone calls and e-mails aren't the same as being there." Still he said, "I have no regrets. I'd do it again."

Packer isn't going anywhere, for now. He and six others in his group that went to Iraq plan on working at the embassy until July or August, and may return if more work becomes available.

"We have a great group of guys here," Packer said. "There's a lot of camaraderie. We get at each other's throats sometimes, but we stick together, and we're always looking out for each other."

SHEET METAL WORKERS from Local 80, as well as other tradesman from Michigan, have been in Iraq for six months building the new U.S. embassy. Pictured are (l-r) Brian Wilson, Al Manikas, Dave Angelo, Tom Donahue, Joe Czarnecki, Jerry Costello, Hector Torres and Dean Smith. Behind them is a bronze set of crossed swords ordered up by Saddam Hussein, the "Hands of Victory," which was constructed in1989 as a monument to what he said was victory in their war with Iran. The monument is in the Green Zone.
HERE IS PART of the Michigan pipe trades contingent working in Iraq. Back (l-r) are Nick Tacolla, Pipe Fitters 636, Piping Foreman Bill Packer (636); Vince Brinker (636); middle row (l-r) Stephan Goudy (636), Ira Miller (Plumbers 98), Ron Babish (98), and Eric Bondy, 636. Kneeling is Bruce Kremhelmer (98). Not pictured: Joe Sloop, (190).
HERE'S THE CONTINGENT OF IBEW electricians working on the American embassy in Iraq. Most are from Local 58. (L-R) Greg Wells, Dan McGlynn, Rusty Bennett, Paul Militello, Pete Trajcevski, Chuck Hill, Lamarr Jones, Chris Williams, Keith Kennedy, Larry Buice, Mike Minenga, Brian Johnson, Mike Woodley, Brian Burtch, Ron Theilman, Dennis Addington and Kevin Weddington.