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Royal Engineers build roads to a better future in Helmand

Captain Simon Oxley was employed as the Operations Officer as part of 517 Specialist Team Royal Engineers, 170 (Infrastructure Support) Group…

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Captain Simon Oxley was employed as the Operations Officer as part of 517 Specialist Team Royal Engineers, 170 (Infrastructure Support) Group Royal Engineers during Op HERRICK 13, between October 2010 and March 2011, and was recently awarded the MBE in the Operational Honours.

During the tour he led a team of Army Engineers who were helping to build the future of Afghanistan by delivering infrastructure projects across Helmand province.

Capt Oxley managed the design and construction of 71km of Tarmac road (the equivalent of 42 football pitches or 544 tennis courts) in Helmand province.

In addition to the 71km of black-topped road delivered by the team, their six-month deployment also saw them manage the construction and refurbishment of 34 Afghan National Police (ANP) patrol bases and checkpoints, as well as numerous other projects across southern Afghanistan.

The 18-man team comprising civil, electrical and mechanical engineers were based in Lashkar Gah, working for the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT):

An engineering design consultancy is the best way of describing our role,” said Capt Oxley.

We worked with the Afghanistan Government Line Ministries supporting large and small infrastructure projects for various sectors including education, health, rule of law and security in identifying what their priorities were, for example which roads they need building.

An important part of the teams work was to develop the Afghan’s own expertise so that they can plan, build and maintain their own infrastructure. To that end only local Afghan businesses were invited to tender for the engineering work.

Capt Oxley said:

The team designed the engineering work and the actual construction of the design went out to tender to local Afghan contractors.

We considered all the tenders received and afterwards we mentored those companies that weren’t successful as to why they weren’t successful, so that they could learn from it and hopefully some time in the future be awarded a tender.

All projects designed and managed by the team had the support of the local people:

The support was important. By giving the Afghans ownership of a project the infrastructure was accepted and supported. They felt they owned the project and had military support. It’s also a good way of injecting money into the local economy and generating employment.

I attended one shura where we discussed the dangers of the Taliban disrupting the building of a road. One villager stood up and said, ‘If they attack the road, they are also attacking us. That road is helping our local community’.

That was just one example of the strong relationship we have with the people,” They want us there, they can see how we can help them build their infrastructure and in so doing help them and their local community.

The team also went out on the ground regularly to check the work on the projects was meeting the required Afghan construction standards:

The materials the Afghans work with are not like those here in the UK so the team have to design using local materials and building methods,” Capt Oxley explained.

The team also had the language barrier to overcome. To get round this, all invitations to tender included a 3D image of the finished projects.

With 14 roads completed in the team’s six-month tour, covering a distance of 71km, the team came up with their own strap line: ‘Clear, Hold, Tarmac’, and even had T-shirts produced with the strapline emblazoned across the arm:

The building of the roads has made a massive difference not just to the Afghans themselves but our own soldiers.

The roads are opening up the areas so that the smaller villagers have access to the big towns and markets but with an asphalt surface it also makes it difficult for the Taliban to lay their bombs and explosive devices making it safer for our soldiers to travel,” said Capt Oxley.

Another major undertaking for the team was the design and construction of 34 ANP patrol bases and checkpoints to help the force manage security within Helmand; a key military objective for transition.

Understanding the end user requirement was critical in all the design processes.

By visiting the key stakeholders, getting all agencies involved (UK, Afghan, American, Non Government Agencies) and gaining an understanding of how the facilities would be used the team could incorporate appropriate features into technical designs and eliminate unnecessary features. Determining user needs from user desires also helped to streamline final designs.

When designing the police bases and checkpoints the team created three standard designs; one for a 15-man, 30-man and 50-man police station, thus saving time in design and delivery of the police stations.

Capt Oxley said:

It’s vitally important work that we are doing. The reconstruction effort in Helmand province goes hand-in-hand with enhancing security and building good governance.

It’s great to see the tangible benefits we’re delivering are making a big difference to the day-to-day lives of local people. We’re helping to build a better future here.

He added:

When I heard I was to be awarded the MBE, I didn’t believe it at first. It really is a huge honour. I see it as recognition not just for me but for the whole team.

If I hadn’t had such a competent team I wouldn’t have had the time and the flexibility to concentrate on the delivery of the roads.

He continued:

I’m looking forward to taking my wife, Samantha, to Buckingham Palace to receive the MBE. We have been married for a number of years and she has fully supported my career even though it comes with long separations at times, whether it be for months or weeks.

She runs the house and looks after everything that goes with that, so the day will be one way of saying thank you for the unstinting support she has given me throughout our married life.

Updates to this page

Published 26 October 2011