Patriot Profiles: Powering up the troops while wiring up the city

Kajaki hydroelectric dam on the Helmand River. DoD photo by Musadeq Sadeq. (Public domain) via Wikimedia Commons

In Kandahar City in 2010, insurgency was at increasingly high levels, and life-sustaining electrical power was in scarce supply. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) joined forces with Afghanistan’s national power company, military regional commands, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to develop a plan.

The Kandahar Helmand Power Project would provide affordable, reliable power to Afghanistan’s second-largest and culturally evolved city — which had been pushed to the brink by Taliban bombs and assassinations. “Powering up” economic growth and stability in this southern province, mission officials said, would also counter insurgents.

“Kandahar City was operating off the Kajaki Dam at 11-12 megawatts, which was severely restrictive for them,” said Chief Warrant Officer Second Class Michael Mears, a survey and design engineer with the Army’s 249th Engineer Battalion.

Mears, a Prime Power production specialist, was assigned to lead a Prime Power team into Kandahar City and oversee the construction of two 10 megawatt power plants and two 300-man base camps.

Mears’ team was recognized by Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of International Security Assistance Force, for completing the $90 million project on a short due date. They tripled power into the city — a city cleared of Taliban by U.S. forces that year.

Mears began as an artilleryman and decided he wanted to do something more technical in engineering. As a prime power specialist, he said, “We specialize in the design, installation, and operation of medium-voltage power systems.”

Prime Power School is long and rigorous. Along with college algebra, “You have to be an E-4 or higher and pass a Basic Math and Science Proficiency Test.” He had to ace physics, trigonometry, and math logic. From the test, it’s accelerated college courses and power plant systems and specialty training. Mears was a Distinguished Honor Graduate.

He explained, “The Army maintains a stock of deployable power plants. Prime Power operators — there’s only one battalion of them — about 200 of us (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 249th).

“Whether it’s war or humanitarian, power requirements are the same. It’s essentially life support, living and dining facilities … they need their iPhone charged … regardless of what theater we roll into.”

Monrovia, Liberia, 2015. Chief Warrant Officer Second Class Michael Mears. Photo courtesy U.S. Army

Kandahar City brought “interesting challenges” to the workplace for Mears: “Lots of rocket fire, indirect fire.”

In Iraq, 2006, Mears served as the project manager for Contingency Operating Base Speicher. “When I got there, they had a 10 megawatt power plant with no distribution. My role was to design the power distribution system from the power plant throughout the entire base camp and oversee contractors. My team also did some of the install.”

Mears managed 14 projects valued at $14.3 million and the expansion of more than 23 megawatts of power for the war fighter.

“In a hostile theater you have so many different base camps,” he said; sometimes it is easier to go with a mobile power plant, rather than revamping existing infrastructure.

“Construction materials are the lifeblood of construction,” said Mears. “If you don’t have the right materials, construction stops.”

Access is also an issue. “It’s been a common theme in most theaters I’ve been in — it’s difficult to get manpower and materials to the project site.” Poor roads and limited access to the country in general require creative solutions.

Mears, a native of Midlothian, Texas, has continued both engineering and officer education. He attended the Battle Staff Non-Commissioned Officer course, graduating on the Commandants List. Mears became the first sergeant first class in the 249th to become a certified level two technician by the International Electrical Testing Association. Despite being selected for promotion to master sergeant, Mears chose to become a construction engineer technician, most recently serving in Ebola-stricken West Africa.

“As a survey design element for the engineer task force, we knew we would be responsible for the designs, and quality assurance/quality control of essentially all construction that was happening in Liberia,” said Mears. Producing Ebola Treatment Unit-specific designs and all road and vertical construction was his detachment’s task.

“The flow of the building and how patients flow through the (Ebola Treatment Unit) in the various zones ... are pretty big considerations,” he said. They talked with USAID to get the World Health Organization’s intent for that. “Each site was very different; essentially, we carve out a piece of the jungle — whatever place the local politicians allow.

“Getting quality materials in West Africa is very difficult,” added Mears. He and the brigade and battalion’s logisticians had to find local key players who could help. “We were on the streets every day for a month, bouncing from shop to shop — finding out who had what and how to get it.”

Procurement was also seriously challenged by the inspection process. “We’d hinge a project of getting a piece of equipment on a certain day and when it would come, it would be either the wrong quality or such poor quality that it would break upon installation.”

“Americans feel safe with our power. Liberians don’t have the electrical code like we do in the States,” said Mears, who was faced with some dangerous rewiring of existing local structures. “Imagine a rat’s nest of electrical wiring. Going into a building and seeing fire marks from where it caught fire before, and they kind of rewired it.

“I’m proud of what I do. I love being the Survey and Design Detachment commander. Every day I get up and give my guys an opportunity to go out and survey design the heck out of Africa and they love that. That gets me excited,” said Mears.

He shines talking about the Gbediah Ebola Treatment Unit, his personal design. He said procurement was honed and everything fell into place in an impressive 23-day build. At least 10 Ebola units have had the Mears hand on them in some way.

Aside from his electrical and construction prowess, Mears spent time as a drill sergeant, implanting Army culture. “Trying to get them (the recruits) on the same sheet of music, while you’re under extreme working hours and stressful conditions — was one of the best and worst jobs I’ve ever had in the Army.

“I’ve learned so much about myself, about being a leader and about engineering in general with the broad spectrum of my job,” said Mears. A high-ranking officer once told him, “You’re only as good when you leave as the people you impacted and pushed forward on the way out.”

CW2 Michael Mears is “powering up” the soldiers under him, with the hope that they “get to where I’m at, if not higher.”