AROUND THE WORLD Vicksburg couple deploys together

Published 12:00 pm Monday, October 10, 2011

For five months, Angela and Jeremy Stokes lived and worked in a different world.

The Stokeses, civilian employees for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Vicksburg, spent March 18 to Aug. 21 in Kabul, Afghanistan, working at the Corps’ Afghan Engineering District-North headquarters. They received the Commander’s Award for Civilian Service, Global War on Terrorism Civilian Service Department of Defense Medal and NATO Medal for their efforts.

Like its southern counterpart, AED-South, the AED-North builds facilities for the Afghan National Security Forces, particularly such infrastructure as roads, water supplies and power stations, and bases and other facilities for U.S. forces.

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The civilian Corps employees working in the engineering districts are volunteers and work seven days a week.

“You get up, go to work, eat and sleep,” said Jeremy, 29.

“It’s like (the movie) ‘Groundhog Day,’ ” said Angela, 30. “Everyday’s the same. You wake up at the same time; you put on the same clothes.”

Jeremy said he and his wife volunteered for the deployment “for the overall experience. It helped us financially and professionally, and it gave us the chance to see parts of the world that we wouldn’t see otherwise.”

Married couples, Angela added, usually don’t deploy together.

“With most married couples, they already have children, so one stays home and the other deploys,” she said, adding they were one of three married couples working in their compound.

“It’s not usual that you get a married couple who both work for the Corps and are able to deploy,” Jeremy said.

Angela has a bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Mississippi and a master’s of business administration from Mississippi College. She is a contract specialist at the Corps’ Engineering Research and Development Center, dealing with buying supplies and equipment. In Afghanistan, she handled construction projects totaling about $60 million.

Jeremy, a Mississippi State University graduate with a degree in forestry and environmental conservation, is an environmentalist in the Corps’ regulatory branch. In Afghanistan, he was a project manager for facilities and services, managing more than 30 contracts valued at more than $7 million.

He also served as a board member and chairman on source selection and evaluation board sessions involving contracts totaling $78 million, including contracts written by his wife.

“He was the chair on several of my projects,” Angela said. “I liked his decisions. I agreed with every one.”

“Even though we didn’t work in the same office, we actually worked together,” Jeremy said. “I would work with the services contractors to supply the generators and equipment for the (construction) projects.”

Located in an arid, mountainous region, Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, is 7,000 feet above sea level. The Taliban is active in northern Afghanistan, and security for all workers in Kabul is tight. Workers leaving the AED-North compound, Jeremy said, have to wear body armor.

Because of road conditions, he said, most travel is done by air because it is faster and safer.

The couple’s trip to Afghanistan began in early March from Jackson with stops in Washington, D.C., and Winchester, Va., before going to Dubai and then Bagram Air Force Base north of Kabul.

In Virginia, they received security briefings, first aid training, underwent a battery of medical tests and received the light brown camouflage uniforms that distinguish civilians from military in Afghanistan.

“We took physicals and had to give a pint of blood for testing, so they would have something to compare when we got back,” Jeremy said. “When we returned, we had to give more blood, and took more physicals.”

And there were shots — anthrax, hepatitis and flu among them.

“They gave them the old-fashioned way,” Angela said, “they took that rubber strip and put it around your arm. I don’t like shots, but I don’t mind them now, because we got so many of them that I’m used to it.”

At Bagram, where weather delayed their flight to Kabul for five days, Angela said the couple questioned their decision to volunteer.

“We had to stay in the ‘B Hut,’ and basically, it is a shack with a bunch of bunk beds,” Angela said. “It’s not very comfortable, and then you have the jets (F-16s) flying overhead day and night. It’s hard to get sleep.”

And there was a 5.8 magnitude earthquake on March 21 that shook the base.

“We went through several earthquakes (while in Afghanistan), but the largest was there,” Angela said.

The couple left Bagram for Kabul at 2 a.m. “dressed in full battle gear,” for a 30-minute hop on an Air Force C-130 transport. They arrived at Kabul International Airport and slept outside until a security unit picked them up at 7 a.m. The airport, they said, was protected by a security force.

The AED-North compound in Kabul is home and office for the people working there, and everyone, Jeremy said, wears a uniform.

Although they were in the green, or international zone, they said, they were aware that they were in a combat area, but there were no incidents during their stay.

The couple had an 8-by-14-foot room, which Angela said was comfortable. For diversions, people exercised at the compound’s gym or would cross the street from their office to Camp Eggers, a military base, to eat.

On Fridays, there were bazaars at Eggers or the International Security Assistance Force compound. Eggers’ mess offered steak and sweet tea on Fridays. After three months in Afghanistan, the Stokeses got a three-week break and traveled through England, France and Italy.

To keep up with the outside world, they used an iPad.

The biggest adjustment after returning to Vicksburg, they said, was the 9 1/2-hour time difference between Kabul and Vicksburg. They added they had a week off to adjust before returning to their regular jobs.

Jeremy said they would consider volunteering again.

“It was definitely worthwhile,” Angela said of the experience. “The times we did go out of the compound, it was eye-opening to see the different cultures and how the Afghan people live. It makes you appreciate what you have here.”