Role Expansion in a Volatile Environment

The story of a surveying project that supports the U.S. military in Afghanistan reveals ways surveyors can evolve to serve their clients.

By Teresa Smithson

I am currently a land surveyor in Afghanistan. Correction: I am currently a geospatial professional in Afghanistan. This change is exciting and gratifying. My project —the Army’s Logistical Civil Augmentation Program (LOGCAP)—provides contingency support to augment the U.S. Army forces with services that include engineering andconstruction, lodging, laundry, sanitation, food service, operations and maintenance, recreation, power generation, information technology, transportation, motor pool, security, and aviation.

My team is redefining the surveyors’ role in this project from “technician and trade” to something far more viable. I function as a project surveyor and survey professional. Primarily, I fulfill the management and organizational functions and develop the GIS project with the help of two other field surveyors.  Together, we provide all of the geospatial support for the entire southern half of Afghanistan, comprising 60 different camps.


Working Conditions

Often the first question I’m asked is “What’s it like to work there?” It really is similar to any other project…


I wake up at 3:00 a.m. to travel to the job site. I ride in helicopters or aircraft instead of jeeps or trucks.  The landing strip is usually dirt or gravel, which means I have to carry 100+ pounds of gear, including my protective vest with steel plates and Kevlar helmet.

One job was at a camp within a 2,000-year-old fortress, with the helicopter landing zone (HLZ) outside the walls. We would land like this: A patrol of marines surrounds the HLZ while only one of the two helicopters lands to unload and load very quickly, and then the marines escort the parties behind the walls. I have also been put down by “combat landing,” which is when a 200-passenger jet drops out of the sky at an angle steep enough to cause you to slide out of your seat if you are not buckled in.

Living conditions

The next time you see a truck with a 20-foot shipping container on the back (CONEXes), imagine a doorway installed on each end with a wall in the middle, and you have housing in Afghanistan for many people. At the main camp in Kandahar, these containers are double stacked with steel walkways for access. Some of these 63-square-footrooms are shared by two people; I have the luxury of living alone in one. (Yes, mortars and shrapnel go through CONEXes like paper.) 

At the fortress camp I was the only female among 200 marines, 17 civilian contractors, and an unknown number of Afghan National Police. The toilets were all port-a-johns, and there was only one shower unit (a CONEX with six shower stalls) that had a working lock. I claimed that lockable unit every evening for a shower.  Our breakfast and dinner were heated by the Army, and we were given MREs (rations) for lunch. 



Although we don’t have to work around rain, imagine dust storms that last for a week! During these storms all transportation is shut down until visibility clears up. I sat at one flight line for several days with dust so thick that visibility was less than 500 feet. Everyone but two other optimistic souls had left to try another day. Out of the blue, or should I say yellow, landed a Blackhawk helicopter heading back to the main base. I heard, “Anyone heading to…?” You bet I was on that ’copter before he had finished.  Apparently, there wasn’t another bird for about four more days to that camp. Imagine what that could do to a project’s budget?



All project surveyors can tell stories about this topic, but ... imagine trying to run a project where, after you have identified your personnel requirements, it will take four to six months before a physical body actually arrives on the project? Add to that a schedule whereby each person leaves the project for two to three weeks at a time, three times per year for a break (R&R).



If you want a true melting pot, this project is the place to be. I work with or interact with almost every country in the world representing at least half of every continent except Antarctica.  I hear different languages in every corner of the project, and the dining facilities offer a variety of ethnic cuisine. 

Because my job is so autonomous, I seldom interact with local contractors.  Being female, I am also more restricted in my behavior. A friendly hello and being polite to a male foreigner or local often results in the male assuming I am trying to “offer myself.” However, the Afghan vendors have gotten used to doing business with American women and are willing to enjoy a conversation and shake my hand, and they always extend hospitality to all. Yet, I have never seen a female local.


Procurement of equipment and supplies

This one is definitely unique (unless you work on other government-procured jobs or in the outback of Alaska). There’s no going to the corner store for that hex wrench to tighten your tripod screws, nope!  Drop a requisition, and it might get here in six months if you make it a priority. We just received three GNSS RTK receivers that had been ordered 15 months prior, and there was no one left on the project who could remember who ordered them!  In addition, you have to plan your equipment needs around a mobile solo surveyor who carries all of the gear, supplies, and computer for a job. The keywords are improvisation and flexibility—and charge the batteries before you leave.



This is the real question most people want to know about, and it’s one that I don’t consider an issue.  “What?!” you ask. Okay, we get mortars shot at us on a semi-regular basis, and people do die; I have lost at least one friend. But compared to the daily risk of living in a city, driving or working on the highway, or taking bush planes, it is actually quiet work. 

Because I work in a combat zone, people ask me about the indirect fire (mortars, rockets, etc.), but some of the real hazards are air quality, extremely high levels of dust, and local fauna. The local fauna includes some of the deadliest scorpions and snakes in the world. A friend almost lost his life after a scorpion stung his arm in his room; he was still in physical therapy one and a half years later. So, when working at an outlying camp, just remember to inquire about the friendliness of the locals and whether the camp has had a sniper problem before setting the instrument on high points such as the top of guard towers. Don’t wear bright colors while on top of said towers and be certain to check where you put your hands and feet.


The Project

So, why am I here and how do surveyors evolve in a combat zone? I came here for the adventure. I stuck with it through a bad start for the money. I stay because I love my job. And one aspect I especially love is being able to evolve in my role as a surveyor. 

In the beginning of this project, the primary survey mission and tools were the same as for most surveyors who support construction: basic engineering design surveys and as-builts using survey-grade GPS and total stations. But all projects have an evolution and a life span, and the LOGCAP contract is no different; it just requires understanding the changing needs of the client.



The life cycle of a project such as this is well defined: 1) mobilization, 2) growth, 3) stabilization, 4) maturity, and 5) demobilization. The two first stages tend to be focused on growth with rapid staffing, expansion of services, lack of or inconsistent standards, and scalability issues. For the surveyor, this period is one of rapid movement, trying to provide control, surveys, and stakeouts for the dozens of camps being developed and built throughout the area of operation.This is where most surveyors traditionally “live”; it is their comfort zone with the addition of the transportation challenges thrown in. 



The phase of stabilization includes maturation of the project with the ability to set and enforce more standards and consistency. The project can now easily adapt to changes and expansions; for me, services for the existing camps become the focus. Again, the surveyor serves in a relatively familiar role, albeit in a more limited scope, through as-builts and expansion surveys.  

It is this stage that affords the most opportunity for the surveyor to shine as the geospatial expert.  Management is now focused on sustainment and asset identification, but a lot of record keeping can be overlooked during the early stage of rapid expansion. So now is the time to collect and organize information, including maintenance schedules and records, asset location, resource allocation and availability, and other facility management functions. 

I imagine none of that sounds like surveying to you. Now consider that spatial decision making produces superior decision making. How about providing a spatial component to the database of all of this information? The surveyor seldom wants to be the database or record keeper for all of those records, which is what the facility management department does, but the geospatial professional can provide accurate planning and design-quality spatial data to that database. 

With the growing compatibility of CAD platform software with GIS software, there is no longer a need for parallel systems. The surveys and products needed for design and planning functions can now be enhanced through additional field collection to produce accurate decision-making drawings, aka maps. 

These maps can be produced as a final product for the client, such as the wall maps we provide to the camp command, or they can have an identifier added to the features for linking into the facilities-management database. A manager sitting in Kandahar can now see where all of his/her generators are throughout the area of operation and access maintenance and repair history.  This ability also directly flows into the last two phases of the project.



Finally the focus is on consolidation, compliance oversight, and enduring operation and maintenance. At this stage, the project surveyors have often become obsolete or under-used while they remain available for those few jobs where their skill is required.  However, the geospatial professional is as valuable at the end of the project as the start. 

As assets and resources are consolidated it is essential to know where those assets and resources are located. A spreadsheet may provide the information, but the superiority of spatial decision making shines through in this arena. The geospatial expert is kept busy providing management with up-to-date information on the location of camp resources. Management and the client now have a tool with which to communicate clearly and concisely how consolidation and demobilization will transpire. Having that spatial component linked to the database also allows both parties to identify areas of impact that are not obvious by looking at a data table.


Not So Different

It appears that the LOGCAP project is unique, having components with little or no application to other projects.  However, I strongly disagree with this statement. How beneficial would it be to have all of your in-house surveys geo-referenced in one database as a catalog of the surveys done in the past? How about providing a professional-looking map of the finished project for your client?  Create one and show it to them; a little extra money spent up front may well increase your clients’ scope of deliverables. 

The life cycle of a project is similar no matter how extreme the environment. Most of the great surveyors of our past didn’t just measure a boundary; those surveyors were creating maps, exploring new lands, and defining space for non-geospatial laypeople to understand. Thinking of new ways to serve your client does not take away from your identity as a surveyor; it enhances your standing as a geo-professional.

Teresa L. Smithson, MRICS is a professional land surveyor with CH2M Hill, currently working in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

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