Despite having to hike three-eighths of a mile over gravel-filled pathways each day for meals, sleeping in an eight-person dormitory style room and having only outdoor bathrooms to use for three months, ECBC Advanced Design and Manufacturing’s (ADM) Kevin Washok is thankful for what he calls “the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Washok recently returned to the U.S. after spending three months in Afghanistan in the summer of 2011, assisting in the establishment of a new U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM) Field Assistant Science and Technology (RFAST) Program location at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. A desire to start a large-scale operation from scratch and a yearning to work closely with the Warfighter prompted Washok to volunteer for the program.
“I wanted an opportunity to go out and set up a barebones shop. This experience proved to be all that I wanted and then some,” Washok said. “And it’s important to note, I was fortunate to have the support at home to allow me to take this opportunity and be out of the country for three months.”
The RFAST program deploys civilian engineers and technicians to Afghanistan for three-to-six months to assist the Warfighter with all technical equipment needs. The program’s mission is to streamline communication between the Warfighter and the technical professionals in order to troubleshoot issues with the Warfighter’s equipment. With technicians and engineers like Washok stationed abroad, they are able to examine equipment, identify capability gaps and work directly with the end users – the Warfighter – to develop working solutions in a more efficient manner.
“Being stationed abroad gives Warfighters the advantage of having their needs quickly met, and gives the technical workers immediate insight and ideas on how to improve the equipment they build,” Washok said.
Washok was a member of the first team to set up the RFAST program at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. The program, which is open to employees of RDECOM and its subordinate organizations, is coordinated through ADM. In the planning stages of the program at Bagram, ADM helped to create the concept for a technical village that provided the base for a larger RFAST operation in Bagram. ADM also helped determine what services the Bagram site would offer and how the RFAST mission would work there, including coordination and reach back to CONUS resources such as the RDECOM Prototype Integration Facilities (PIFs), program managers and the safety community.
“After ADM helped with the initial set-up, the RFAST PIF Director –who happens to be Dr. LTC Alan Samuels from ECBC’s Research and Technology Directorate - looked to ECBC to provide key personnel for the first rotation in Bagram,” said Mark Schlein, ADM Division Chief. “Kevin applied and was chosen from about a dozen or so other applicants to represent ECBC.”
Helping the new RFAST location take a step in the right direction, Washok worked to establish a safety program at Bagram modeled after ECBC’s safety program. Andy Cote from the ECBC Risk Office supported Washok and his colleagues to develop a safety plan appropriate to the site’s needs.
“We took the safety measures provided to us by Mr. Cote and adapted them to unique situations we had. We were able to mirror what is done at ECBC with the addition of a few Standard Operating Procedures particular to Afghanistan,” Washok said. “The help Mr. Cote provided us was significant and allowed us to get things in place over there.”
Washok noted that the information sharing in Afghanistan was two way– he helped to share best practices from ECBC, but also gained additional perspectives and ideas from the other technicians and Warfighters stationed in Bagram.
“My relationship with the Warfighter was basically one of shared information. The technicians and Warfighters developed a knowledge bank,” Washok said. “We had machinist welders assigned to a helicopter section in Bagram. As we got to know them, we were able to show them our capabilities and what we do; and they in turn showed us their methods.
“The program is a great opportunity for engineers to network and interact with each other and with program operators on a whole new level. Seeing everyone working together toward the same goal was amazing.”
Washok’s average day started at 7 a.m. and ended at 8 p.m. The day was spent solving problems with equipment and working with contractors to coordinate solutions for problems. As Washok explained, the heart of his work lay within the relationships he made and the knowledge he gained while overseas – both things he is now applying to his work in Edgewood.
“The deployed employees get a unique experience and understand the customer better,” said Schlein. ”What we gain back home is a sense of satisfaction. It’s about how can we contribute to the Soldier better,” Schlein said.
Currently, Bagram’s RFAST Program is looking to ECBC to potentially manage the business aspects of the program, which would include contracting, purchasing and coordinating maintenance contracts.
“We’re working up a plan on how we can support them with the business of the program. Anytime you take on these tasks that serve a greater purpose you feel a sense of accomplishment. You also get the satisfaction of knowing you’re making a difference right where it counts,” Schlein said.
Schlein would like to maintain ECBC’s presence in Afghanistan through the RFAST program, ideally stationing an engineer or technician from the Center in each RFAST rotation. Currently Colin Graham, an engineer from ADM, is serving a six-month term with RFAST.
“There are always three technicians in Bagram at one time,” Schlein said. “The plan, as employees are available, is to have a technician from ECBC in Bagram at all times along with representatives from the other RDECOM subordinate organizations.”
Both Schlein and Washok emphasize the personal commitment required by RFAST participants, noting that the program requires more of an employee than just interest.
“This is a totally volunteer-based program. You have to be willing to give up three to six months of your life,” Schlein said.
With regard to the personnel sent to the programs in Afghanistan and in other locations like Iraq, Schlein says ECBC has been complimented on the fact that it has a robust number of volunteers to go overseas.
“We feel confident that here at ECBC we have several very good technicians and engineers who can replace Colin following his rotation,” Schlein said. “We intend to continue to support this for as long as needed and as long as we have people willing to apply.”