Left: Toledoan Tim Owens with Robin Williams in Afghanistan
Dressed in black with a leather jacket, T-shirt, and jeans, Tim Owens stepped up to the microphone and began to croon.
“You’ll never find…another love like mine,” sang the almost- Lou Rawls, hitting the low notes with precision and grace. The karaoke crowd gave Owens a deserved round of applause, but for one member of the audience the love song had special meaning: Tim’s wife Connie.
Tim Owens has been in the employ of the US Army in Afghanistan two years, working as an electrician at a base near Kandahar. He recently returned for a short visit to Toledo, and had been home for only a day when we met at a local pub. My anemic attempt at channeling Roy Orbison did not draw enough applause to prevent us from talking about his assignment.
“We Americans take so much for granted,” he said. “Coming over here has made me realize just how great we really have it at home.”
Unlike reservists called up for duty or new recruits eager to defend the nation from terrorists, Tim’s decision to seek employment with the military was largely based upon the poor economic conditions in Northwest Ohio. He worked for years as an electrician at the General Mills plant on Laskey Road, which began to phase out production in 2001.
After many months of fruitless job searches, temporary employment, and odd jobs, Owens made one of the most difficult decisions of his life: to accept a position as an electrical contractor for the US military in Afghanistan.
“My reason for coming over here was solely to be able to provide for my family,” he said. “Working through the union is great - when there is work.”
Owens’ search for steady employment extended far beyond the union halls of Northwest Ohio.
“I know I have a marketable skill and I couldn’t keep sitting and waiting for someone to call me with a job,” he said. “It became intolerable. The politicians were saying how great the economy was, but you couldn’t prove that by the thousands of unemployed IBEW workers all across the country. Many of my union brothers were losing their cars and homes. I was willing to travel and I called just about every Union hall across the country. I even drove to Boston a couple of times to sign their book.”
The military subcontracted with Halliburton to provide logistical support for its Middle East campaigns in the post-9/11 era. Owens actually works for another subcontractor called KBR.
“We’re in southeast Afghanistan, about 50 miles from the Pakistani border,” he said. “I can’t comment on the number of troops here but there are about 1000 KBR employees here, from everywhere, from all trades and all walks of life.”
With little else to do, Owens and his crews put in long hours in the desert sun.
“They begin at 6 AM and work 12 hour days, 7 days a week,” he said. While security concerns prohibit him from giving specifics, he said that the overall priority of the contractors is “job is to make things comfortable for the troops.”
For a Midwesterner, Afghanistan might seem distant in more ways than geography (it is 6,910 miles from Toledo to Kabul, for trivia aficionados) Owens said that, while he rarely leaves the base, he comes into contact with many local Afghans.
“The Afghanis are a kind and gentle people,” he said. “The locals who work on the base do not use utensils when they eat, and they eat a lot of fruits and vegetables with unleavened bread.”
The terrain in which Owens finds himself is very different from that of Northwest Ohio.
“The weather varies from hot to darn hot. At this time things are just starting to warm up and we have reached 100° already,” he said, adding that it is still, officially, spring in Kandahar. “We are coming into the sandstorm season which is really wild and something to experience. You can actually see the dust rolling in.”
Owens feels that the US presence in Afghanistan is improving conditions for the average Afghani.
“The mission of the US here is greatly appreciated by the locals,” he said. “This was especially evident to me during the time that they were holding their elections.”
Left: Tents of American contractors
Being separated from his family has been difficult for Owens. We spoke at length about how he, Connie, and the children cope with the separation.
“Yes, it is very difficult being away from my family but they are the reason I am doing this… they are my ‘why,’” said Owens. “When your ‘why’ is big enough, and your faith is strong, you can manage just about anything. I keep Christ Jesus first in my life and my faith helps me deal with the separation.”
One of the keys to managing a long-distance relationship, according to Owens, is the same as in any relationship: honest communication.
“Talking to my wife almost every day - either by phone or e-mail - helps a lot,” he said. “I can honestly say that this time away has made me realize just how much I truly love her and how important she is in my life. We keep each other strong by staying focused on the reasons we are doing this and what we truly mean to each other.”
One of the most difficult times for Owens occurred in April, when a Chinook military helicopter crashed about 100 miles south of Kabul. On board was Clyde resident Sy Jason Lucio. The tragedy was more to Owens than just the loss of a fellow electrician.
“I would like you to dedicate this article to my friend Sy, who was killed in that helicopter crash during a sandstorm a few months ago,” said Owens. “I knew him and I really felt his loss. I am so sorry for his family’s grief. You can’t insulate yourself from experiencing that kind of loss here.”
Owens maintains a positive outlook with regard to the mission in Afghanistan.
“I have met and befriended a lot of military people and some of them have gone out on missions and did not return,” he said. “It is a constant reminder to me not to get too comfortable here because, although things are relatively quiet, this is still a war zone. I do support what we are trying to do in this region and for the people here, it was long overdue. We are making a difference.”
This is a reprint of a cover story I wrote for the Toledo Free Press. The photos are courtesy of Tim Owens.