USACE People: Engineer reflects on somber, gratifying experiences in Afghanistan
By Rachel Goodspeed
TBILISI, Republic of Georgia — As John Gerlach visits the pathology lab renovation site here, no longer do children run up to him looking for candy and soda. At night, the sound of incoming fire is replaced with that of cars passing by.
In February, the resident engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District's Caucasus Resident Office returned from a six-month deployment to Afghanistan where he served as an area engineer.
Initially, Gerlach managed three resident offices, but because of realignments due to changing workloads, he ended his tour managing two area offices and six resident offices comprised of roughly 52 American civilians.
"That doesn't even include local nationals!" Gerlach said during an interview discussing his most recent deployment. So far, this has been the first deployment for the New York-native … and he will likely find himself back in Afghanistan in the coming years.
Goodspeed: Tell me a little about your deployment.
Gerlach: When they say, "How was Afghanistan?" that's such a loaded question. You don't know where to start. It's totally different out there. I was up in the mountains not far from the Pakistan border, but it was a desert environment. I had my own "chew," which was a Conex trailer. It was good. The latrines were usually outside since we didn't have any running water, but it was still great. I didn't have to share it with anyone and I had my privacy. Every morning the birds would be chirping outside. I always wondered if they knew we were at war.
Goodspeed: What were some of the projects you had to oversee?
Gerlach: I had a couple of [military construction] projects, but most of my projects were [Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police] projects.
Goodspeed: Did you get to interact much with our military counterparts out there?
Gerlach: All the time. They were a good bunch of guys. There were engineer brigade Soldiers, and there were also Corps of Engineers Soldiers who were our drivers and our shooters. You really have to give it to the troops over there. Those guys really give up a lot. We had it a little rough in the start -- it was like deer hunting for six months -- but those guys had it even tougher. They're out in the woods, out in the sticks.
Goodspeed: Did you get to interact with anyone in the local villages?
Gerlach: A couple of times. When we would stop to inspect a site, the kids would come up and start talking to us. They were always looking for candy or pop or something like that.
Goodspeed: Can you tell me about one of your more memorable experiences out there?
Gerlach: A lot of things really happened out there. I went to a couple of Hero Ceremonies, which was really an eye-opening experience. Late one Saturday afternoon, a call for a Hero Ceremony came over the loudspeaker, which meant one of the Soldiers had died of his wounds. We went out that night, gunfire going off in the distance. It was a full moon. The sky was so clear. The moon was so bright, it lit up the whole base. Everyone lined the street between the clinic and the runway where the Blackhawk was standing, spooling up. They brought the body past us draped in a flag, rolling past us slowly, almost like a funeral procession. We all saluted before they loaded the Solider on the helicopter. You know, my son is in the Air Force and he always deploys. He's 27 and all I could think of was him when they rolled this Soldier past me.
Goodspeed: So how was it readjusting, coming back to Europe?
Gerlach: Difficult. I'm having some issues right now -- I can't sleep. When you're pumping adrenaline and running at such a high pace, then all of a sudden they pull the plug and its life back to normal, it's a bit of a shock. After awhile I got used to outgoing in the middle of the night. It was almost like thunder. You know how sometimes thunder can be very cozy at night.
Goodspeed: So what do you do with your weekends now that you have all this "free time?"
Gerlach: What do I do?! Nothing! I think next weekend I'm going skiing, which I need to do because I need to do something to burn off some of this energy that I still have from Afghanistan.
Goodspeed: Would you go back?
Gerlach: It was a really great experience. I had a good time out there, Rachel. I'd do it again.
Besides, "Better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven!"