City manager leaves positive mark on Iraq

Major Dave DeMayo, right, and Sasha Fraiture, a worker for the U.S. Agency for International Development, fly in a helicopter over Maysan Province in Iraq.<BR><I>Photo contributed by Dave DeMayo

Managing the city of Heppner may not be as exciting as building schools in Iraq, but Major Dave DeMayo still is happy to be home.

After 20 years in the Army, DeMayo retired in 1993 thinking he was probably through with the military.

"I called them on the phone several years back and said, 'if you need someone, call me,' " DeMayo said.

Last summer, the Army took him up on that offer and in November he flew to Iraq to spend a year helping to rebuild the country's outdated infrastructure. During Saddam Hussein's rule, DeMayo explained, much of the country's basic utilities were neglected.

"The sewer, water and electrical were basically in shambles," he said. "Everyone just kind of squeaked by."

DeMayo was part of the reconstruction team for Maysan Province, which is in southern Iraq bordering Iran. He was stationed at Tallil Airbase near the city of Nasiriyah. To get to work every day, DeMayo and his team rode a helicopter to Maysan province or drove for three hours.

The goal behind the reconstruction efforts, DeMayo said, is to stabilize the country's functions province by province. So when security is eventually handed back to the Iraqis, he said, it has a better chance of success.

In the Maysan province the reconstruction team initiated the building of new schools, water purification stations and utilities.

In al-Amarra, the capital of Maysan, they facilitated the construction of two high schools, al- Askri and al-Obay. The American team would hire Iraqi contractors, DeMayo said, and then oversee the construction of the project.

A lack of skills was a problem among the Iraqi workers, he said, because many of them were untrained and inexperienced. The U.S. forces set up trade schools in some provinces, but in others, DeMayo said, the reconstruction teams trained people while the project was being built.

DeMayo said there was little violence in the areas where he worked and the people in the villages were very happy to see new schools going up.

"Things were OK," he said. "People have their lives and they live them just like we live ours. They're no different than we are."

But there were communications problems between the U.S. forces and the Iraqis, he said. For example, when the U.S. military chose a contractor for a project, U.S. forces would ask whether the company had previously completed a similar project.

"They are not used to having those requirements, and they think the questions are kind of strange," DeMayo said.

The Iraqi system for choosing contractors is a bit of a mystery, he said, because their government is not as transparent as ours. To get the Iraqis to open up and talk, he said, U.S. forces had to cultivate their trust. And you had to work with the Iraqis, he said, because they are still a sovereign country.

"You can't just bust in at gunpoint and say, 'We're taking over this meeting,' " DeMayo said.

DeMayo said he made many friends among the people he met in Iraq. He was pleasantly surprised, he said, by the deference that Iraqis show toward older people just because of their experience.

DeMayo's wife, Neva, said she experienced a shock when her husband went to Iraq - that of being suddenly single.

"It caught me by surprise," she said. "I never thought he would get called up for war."

Neva DeMayo said the house was a little too quiet and the winter a little too lonely without him. When a gale-force wind blew through Heppner and knocked several shingles off the DeMayos' house, she had to ask someone to replace them. And when it snowed, her husband wasn't there to shovel the sidewalk.

"When your husband's gone, it seems like a car missing one of its wheels - some things just don't run as they should," Neva said.

Thankfully, she said, almost everyone in Heppner knew that Dave DeMayo had gone to Iraq and they were more than happy to help out.

"Heppner is just a wonderful place to be," she said.

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