To send others, Davis wanted to see Iraq first hand|[2/5/06]

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 6, 2006

CAMP VICTORY, Iraq – Barney Davis tells a story about his decision to volunteer for civilian service in the reconstruction here.

He has a sister, who still lives in Starkville where he grew up. She said to her son, &#8220Your uncle is going to Iraq.” The son’s reply was &#8220Uncle Jake?”.

&#8220No,” she said with a tinge of amazement, &#8220Uncle Barney, the smart one.”

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Davis, who says his brother Jake is plenty smart, by the way, said his motives were twofold.

&#8220This is a huge undertaking – the largest, most aggressive thing the Corps has ever done,” he said. &#8220I didn’t want to miss it.”

The second reason is that as chief of construction for the Nashville District of the Army Corps of Engineers, Davis had encouraged many of his staff and co-workers to volunteer to transfer to duty stations here.

&#8220I wanted to step up and do what I’ve asked my people to do,” he said.

&#8220And when I go back and talk to others who are headed this way, I’ll be able to tell them better what to expect.”

The Nashville District has about 700 employees and a $150 million annual budget. The Gulf Region Central District has about 125 employees and will manage $1 billion worth of building and rebuilding in just the current 12-month period.

The GRC compound is one cluster of about six one- and two-story buildings at Camp Victory, which extends north from Saddam Hussein’s Water Palace.

The one-story buildings are administrative offices in which modern furnishings are ample and air-conditioners – although not needed in this, the rainy season – are ramped up to beat the heat of summer. The two-story buildings are for billeting. They feature long halls with sparsely furnished rooms on each side and shared laundry, toilet and shower areas.

Each room has a TV, even though the only thing to see is DVDs brought from home or purchased from the PX. There’s really nothing to do but work, wash and sleep – so personnel tend to stay focused.

To carry out the projects – water, sewer, new schools, clinics, hospitals, power plants and grid work and myriad others – the Corps and the Army’s Project Contracting Office hire private-sector firms and monitor their progress.

Companies from all over the world are hired based on their bids.

Two myths don’t hold up. One is that the expense is being borne by U.S. taxpayers. The other is that Iraqis are bystanders.

Congress has appropriated about $18 billion for rebuilding, but there’s also funding from international sources and a big portion of the cash is coming from Saddam’s personal fortune and from other seized assets and forfeitures. No one seems to have an exact total today, three years into the effort, and no one may ever come up with a final figure.

Davis says there’s no way around it: Any project here will cost a lot more than it would anywhere else.

Security, also private, is required for all sites, Davis said, because contractors do risk being killed every day. That risk pushes up pay and benefits, so it also pushes up bids. And almost all materials must be imported, adding even more cost.

Being here has shown Davis something not widely reported or stressed: the involvement of Iraqis in both the planning and building.

&#8220You’ll always have the radical element,” Davis said. &#8220But I don’t think they’re anywhere near the majority.”

That majority he describes as &#8220knowledgeable, willing to shoulder the load.”

Davis, by the way, had to apply twice before being accepted for duty here.

As a diabetic, he was rejected until he could show himself more medically stable. In contrast, he cites the bravery of a team working on an entry control point who were attacked twice in a month. All the contractors and their teams &#8220face death to go out there and work on these projects. The bad guys go after them if they know they’re working for us.”