SAVANNAH, Ga. – As if deploying to Afghanistan does not pose enough of a challenge, making a dramatic mission change in the middle only adds to personal and professional demands. However, Gordon Simmons, Savannah District’s chief of engineering, would not let that slow him from pushing forward to help the people of that war-torn nation.
Tapped by division leaders for a deployment to Afghanistan, Simmons oversaw more than 200 projects of strategic and economic importance as the Chief of Engineering and Construction for USACE’s Transatlantic Division from Sept. 1, 2014 to Aug. 29, 2015.
Primed with experience working on large-scale, time-sensitive projects, Simmons was originally tasked to drawdown Transatlantic District’s remaining construction projects by April 2015. However, with the election of Afghanistan’s new President Mohammad Ghani in September 2014, a new bilateral agreement realigned priorities to bolster economic needs, invest in greater infrastructure and cultivate a more robust and skilled national defense.
As that nation opened its national army and police forces to women, Simmons shifted paradigms about halfway through his deployment, rebuilding a team and leading an ensemble of engineers who traversed the country to fulfill planning design, construction and operations, and maintenance needs of this renewed infrastructure program, he said.
To adhere to cultural norms, Simmons and his team needed to design and construct female-specific gymnasiums, child care facilities, conference centers, training centers and barracks throughout the developing country.
“[They] still have cultural separation but now they have the added value of a female workforce,” Simmons said. “Fifty percent of the country’s population wasn’t being utilized so integrating females to the workforce spurs more growth in the country.”
Simmons welcomed the challenge to ramp up the design and implementation of more projects because it allowed him more tactical involvement on the ground. It was also atypical of the processes encountered at the district level, he said.
“As an engineer I love designing and solving engineering problems and this was about the purest form of that you could get,” he said. “There were fewer procedural, policy or personnel issues to deal with and a very simple budget to operate within, freeing up more time for problem solving with less time required for typical requirements and management one might see in the states.”
Under the leadership of USACE-TAA Commander Col. Pete Helmlinger, Simmons significantly improved basic infrastructure and quality of life in the country, building upon 13 years of U.S.-led coalition efforts across the country.
And Simmons said the geopolitical transformation has started to show.
“[The Afghans] now have a functioning army and police service that have taken the fight for themselves,” he said. “They are growing in economic areas, increasing their gross domestic product and becoming self-sufficient as a country. This is something struggled to do before, and for the Corps of Engineers to have our part in the infrastructure and national security development of this country was a rewarding outcome where I could easily to see the difference during the times I spent in country.”
For his efforts, Simmons was awarded the Bronze Order of the de Fleury Medal, known as one of the highest honors bestowed in the Corps. Helmlinger presented him with the award in June 2015 and lauded his ability to excel in a challenging and complex environment.
Part of this challenge includes executing missions while rising above the constant personnel changes of a deployed environment, said Simmons.
“There’s always rotation and turn over in the staff, so everyone has to fall right in and get to it,” he said. “Everybody helps others to be successful because of that rotating nature of business in a contingency operation.”
The Savannah District’s engineering division experienced this rotating culture under the direction of four interim chiefs who each served 90-120 day terms in Simmons’ absence. One of the chiefs, Deputy Chief of Engineering Ed Krolikowski, said they minimized lapses in normal processes and provided continuity for the workforce.
“When you lose your leader it has a great impact,” said Krolikowski. “We don’t possess all of his personal knowledge from the years he’s been chief but we worked together to keep processes going.”
Though Savannah’s Engineering Division temporarily relinquished its top brass, Krolikowski said that the TAA division gained a talent with panoramic vision and a proclivity to identify and solve large-scale issues.
“He’s a very strategic thinker,” said Krolikowski. “He’s able to come up with solutions from a high level and has the combination of experience and training in his toolbox of knowledge that shows in his execution of duties.”
Simmons carried this “toolbox of knowledge” to 35 countries for five different districts during a 31-year career with USACE. With several shorter contingency tours of duty under his belt, he said he considers his most recent deployment the most rewarding because he had more time to see the span of a project and take ownership of long-term issues.
“It was a satisfying growth experience,” he said. “It would be the best job I ever had if I could wake up next to my wife every morning. You give up a lot of freedoms but you can accomplish a lot on your mission.”
And even in the top tier of one’s profession, deployments can offer opportunities to sharpen one’s discipline.
“You’ll come back a better person,” he said.