He was a forester working in a country – Iraq – without forests, and assigned to look over environmental conditions at U.S. military installations there – in the middle of a war – but Pat Guertin didn't feel out of place.
Oh, he knew he was in a war zone. The occasional bomb exploding in Baghdad, or the mortar fire he experienced in Balad, 50 miles north, made that clear, not to mention the equipage of his dining companions.
"You're in the (mess hall) and you're surrounded by 1,000 guys with machine guns," Guertin, 40, of Champaign said recently. "You know you're not back in the states."
But while environmental assessments may not be "something that you first think of when you think of Iraq and Afghanistan," he said, environmental issues can be important to the health and welfare of the soldiers in the field, not to mention the Army's pocketbook.
When the Army moves a Stryker armored vehicle unit from Alaska to Baghdad, for instance, it needs to know whether facilities exist to support the unit, enough clean water for drinking, say, and enough wastewater treatment capacity to handle that drinking water downstream, so to speak. It also needs to know such things as the potential impact on air quality.
So assessing the sustainability of U.S. installations, as well as their capability to accommodate more troops, was one of the tasks performed by Guertin, a researcher at the U.S. Army Construction Engineering Research Lab in Champaign, and the team with which he worked, whose four other members came from around the U.S.
The Champaign lab, known as CERL, develops better ways to build, operate and maintain military facilities. Over the years, it has built a particular expertise in environmental assessment work, among other things.
A few years ago, Guertin volunteered for one of the environmental support teams CERL's parent organization, the Army Corps of Engineers, deploys to assist troops.
Guertin worked in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina last year, and when the Army corps sent an e-mail around asking for volunteers in Iraq this year, he volunteered again. He picked up a helmet and gas mask at a three-day training session in Virginia, got his flak vest in Kuwait and found himself in Iraq for a month in August and September.
His teammates included experts in everything from sewage treatment to unexploded ordnance. Besides looking at the sustainability of U.S. bases, the team also examined such issues as how American forces are disposing of hazardous waste.
The military will be responsible for environmental problems when it closes the facilities or hands them over to Iraqi forces and it would prefer not having big, expensive messes to clean up.
Guertin's job was to make site visits, do interviews with responsible personnel, review documentation and, ultimately, write reports and recommendations on what he and other team members found. The work being done by the personnel in the field impressed him.
He lived, depending on where he was deployed, in temporary dorm- or trailer-like facilities, which at least were air-conditioned. Temperatures ranged around 110 to 120 degrees. On the other hand, it didn't rain.
"It was a dry heat," Guertin joked.
He got around in military planes, helicopters and armored Toyotas and, while aware of being in a war zone, felt pretty safe.
"The Army took care of us real well," he said.
In fact, despite long days characterized by meeting, working, sleeping and then waking up and doing the same again, he called the experience gratifying and said he would go back.
In part, that's because the job gives him a chance to work directly with the troops CERL exists to support, Guertin said.
"The people are usually enjoyable, the work is fulfilling," he said. "Everybody was friendly and helpful. The thing I couldn't get used to was everybody calling me 'sir.' It makes you feel old."
He'd also go back for the sightseeing, albeit sightseeing that came as part of the job rather than on excursions. He recounted watching a soldier fishing in one of the stocked lakes at a palace once occupied by Saddam Hussein.
"Part of the (attraction is) just seeing things that you never saw," Guertin said. "I got to see two of Saddam's palaces. I got to talk to people from all over the world."