Extreme IT: Battling dust, heat and bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq

How IT pros keep communications running in the desert and under fire

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Wills: There's also the matter of electricity. We're used to a set standard here in the States, but in Afghanistan and Iraq you have more spikes and drops. So uninterruptible power supplies are our best friends.

Dedham: The dirty power is a huge issue, because you end up going through parts and life-cycling equipment a lot quicker than you do when you're in a nice, clean environment like the States. Routers go bad, switches go bad, just because of the dirty power you're getting from generators, unregulated power, power surges and things like that. That just adds another challenge in that you need a good stock of repair parts.

Fielden: The man-made environment is definitely a problem. Before we got here, when the base was first being built, they just threw comm cables in the ground, and record-keeping was terrible. When [our] civil engineers came in to do some construction or lay down some additional infrastructure, inevitably we'd have a comm cable cut.

Repairing a radio antenna

Repairing a radio antenna in Iraq. Click to view larger image.

What's the most interesting project you've worked on recently?

Fielden: I'm working with the Army on figuring out how we can merge our comm infrastructures together. Both services have a very large and robust communications infrastructure on Balad, and we both have very smart, motivated personnel maintaining those networks. The thought is that if there's a way to combine the Air Force and Army networks into a single infrastructure serving all customers on base, we'll become more efficient and more effective.

Dedham: For me, probably the most interesting project was building a coordination center right on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. That site is a world-class operations center that Afghans, Pakistanis and coalition forces work out of. Inside it has all different types of network connectivity, information systems, large-screen TVs to view full-motion video from unmanned aerial vehicles, and other sensor data. It's a state-of-the-art technical facility that was a challenge to build because the location is so remote.

How did you wind up in IT?

Dedham: I was a computer science major. I joined the Army right out of college, and I've been in IT full time in the Army for almost 20 years.

Fielden: I was always fascinated by electronics and radio as a kid. I enlisted in the Air Force in 1984 and became a radio technician. Eventually I went off to college and got a degree in physics, with an emphasis on electronics and magnetism. I came back in as a commissioned officer and requested to get into IT. I've been in for a total of 23 years now and loved every bit of it.

What have you learned from your IT experiences over there?

Fielden: I've learned that given the right people and the right motivation, you can make IT work anywhere in the world. Anywhere we need to have a U.S. military presence, I guarantee you we can get a robust information technology infrastructure in place, up and running, reliably providing services we're used to back stateside, very quickly.

The 332nd Expeditionary Communications Squadron

The 332nd Expeditionary Communications Squadron. Click to view larger image.

Wills: The individuals who work for Don [Fielden] and Pat [Dedham] are truly innovative. I've seen people from Microsoft or Cisco come in and say, "It's not supposed to do that." Well, it's not supposed to, but it does, because the men and women out there aren't constrained, and they make things happen.

Dedham: The biggest thing I've learned is how significant information systems and networks can be in flattening information so it can get to everyone right away without having to follow any kind of bureaucratic hierarchy.

In a World War II movie, you see information move from team to squad to platoon to company to battalion to brigade to division. With IT, you can flatten that information and get it to everybody in real time. It makes a huge difference operationally on the battlefield, for everybody out there.

Are you going to stay in the military when your tour is up?

Fielden: As long as the Air Force will have me, I'll keep right on going. It's the best job an individual can have.

Jake Widman is freelance writer in San Francisco.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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