Vern Thomas, Fort Hunter Liggett Heavy Equipment Engineer Operator with the Directorate of Public Works, returns with honors from a two-year tour in Afghanistan as part of the Civilian Expeditionary Force supporting NATO missions. His first impression upon landing there was, “What did I do?”
It was winter, windy and 18-inches of snow covered the ground when Thomas arrived at Bagram Airfield. The weather wasn’t the only hostility he faced.
“It’s a war zone,” he said. ”I have shrapnel from an enemy missile that exploded behind (my) building,” said Thomas.
To further illustrate the danger, there was a suicide bombing incident at Bagram right before he arrived, and on April 8, a week after he departed, a car bomb near the airfield killed three service members and wounded another three service members.
Thomas signed up for a one-year deployment to Bagram, and because it is in a battle zone, he received customs and firearms training to prepare for the assignment. He never had to put the skills to use but was glad he was prepared. Thomas says Bagram was constantly attacked, sometimes two or three times a day.
He served as an engineer equipment operator and Operations & Maintenance Shop Lead in the Bagram Airfield Public Works Department, which received more than 50 work orders a month. Staff worked 70-plus hours a week to meet mission demands. He was part of a 14-man DPW shop of civilians from all over the United States that worked 365 days a year with three authorized R & Rs (rest and recuperation).
They worked with joint and NATO forces on various DPW projects, from earth-moving missions, trench digging to lift support (moving things around).
He worked on numerous earth movement and ground maintenance projects such as completing more than six miles of improved ground, 3.5 miles of new road construction, and digging more than 2.5 miles of trenches to install optical fiber and prime power cables.
The most challenging assignment was the re-graveling of an access control point right “outside the wire” with armed guards. Thomas describes Bagram as like living in a prison. “Bagram is surrounded by big t-walls with c-wire all around it.” “T-walls” are steel-reinforced concrete blast walls and “c-wire” is concertina wire.
Thomas, who also served at Kandahar Airfield, received the Commander’s Award for Civilian Service from March 2017 to March 2019. He is cited for providing exceptional leadership and management skills while executing more than 375 work orders.
He signed up for one year but ended up serving two years in Afghanistan. Thomas said it was a good experience. He made some good friends, and was glad he could serve his country. Would he do it again?
“If I was younger, yes,” he said.
Thomas says that Bagram still needs all the help they can get. The Civilian Expeditionary Workforce (CEW) allows civilians to fill crucial vacancies in DoD missions abroad, many in austere or hostile locations. Deploying can substantially boost the paycheck, depending on the work and location.
Thomas acknowledged that is was not an easy assignment but said, “If you’re going to make a commitment, make the commitment.” He says it was rewarding to make a difference and work alongside U.S. and NATO service members.
For information on the CEW: https://home.army.mil/imcom/index.php/Organization/human-services/g1-personnel/cew