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Contracting officers procure the 'goods' downrange

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Leigh Wakefield, 386th Expeditionary Contracting Squadron contingency contracting officer, highlights last-minute fixes on a military working dog kennel for contract workers to complete before she can accept the project on behalf of the U.S. government May 22, 2010 at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Released)

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Leigh Wakefield, 386th Expeditionary Contracting Squadron contingency contracting officer, highlights last-minute fixes on a military working dog kennel for contract workers to complete before she can accept the project on behalf of the U.S. government May 22, 2010 at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Released)

SOUTHWEST ASIA -- A truck slowly pulls up next to the awaiting vehicle, leaving a cloud of dust in its wake. The occupants exit the vehicles, eager to finalize the deal. After a brief discussion, the goods are placed in the truck and payment is made. Both parties shake hands and go their separate ways.

While it may sound like a backroom deal straight out of the movies, this transaction is a legal, legitimate business deal and a common occurrence for members of the 386th Expeditionary Contracting Squadron, whose job is to procure commodities, services and construction for the wing and its associated tenant units.

The contracting staff works closely with base personnel and off-base contractors to ensure the wing's needs are met, whether it's obtaining mission-essential equipment, working building renovations or organizing service contracts such as custodial duties and recycling.

"We touch almost every aspect of the mission," said Maj. Robert McCabe, 386th ECONS commander, serving on a one-year assignment here. "From septic to sorties, ECONS had some play in making it all happen. I'm amazed at the commitment our contingency contracting officers have to their customers, ensuring timely delivery of the right material, product or service. It's the establishment of this relationship with our customers that drives us to exceed their expectations. They are truly an amazing bunch."

Master Sgt. Adam Stern, 386th ECONS superintendent, also serving on a one-year assignment here, said the expertise contingency contracting officers carry with them is especially critical in a deployed environment.

"Even though we're in a contingency environment, we still have rules and regulations that Congress, the Department of Defense and the Air Force have mandated," he said. "We have the knowledge and training to be able to get the customer what they want while still following the correct rules and regulations."

With the 386th AEW covering such a vast mission supporting a variety of units, the 386th ECONS team is divided into sections, each with a specific mission focus to include base operations, infrastructure and a two-person team dedicated to the 387th Air Expeditionary Group, a geographically separated unit.

Staff Sgt. Joseph Hoh, 386th ECONS contingency contracting officer, is part of the infrastructure team, working solely with the 386th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron, administering contracts, closing out old contracts and ordering equipment.

"I pretty much buy any commodity that CE needs, which mostly includes equipment for facilities, plumbing or [heating, ventilation and air conditioning]," said the St. Louis native deployed from Lajes Field, Azores, Portugal. "Some of my more recent projects include a couple of minor construction issues like replacing some glass windows in the watch towers and remodeling a building on the flightline."

The NCO added there are a few significant differences between working as a contracting officer stateside versus downrange.

"The threshold here is greater so we can get more done in a shorter amount of time because we don't have to follow as many rules here as we do back home," he said. "You can put a lot more money on your [government purchase card] instead of having to write a purchase order every time, so that expedites things too. It's also nice to see the end results of our work, which we usually don't get to see back home. Another thing I like here is that we have a lot more interaction with contractors. We know specifically who we're dealing with and we deal with a lot of the same people for a lot of the stuff, so we build a working relationship with the contractors; whereas stateside or even overseas, you order a lot of stuff online and over the phone, so you talk to most people only once."

Tech. Sgt. Leigh Wakefield, 386th ECONS contingency contracting officer, also has a unique experience within the unit as she has the opportunity of being one of two CCOs to work for the 387th AEG.

"Working with the 387th AEG keeps us busy," she said. "We have several big projects going on right now such as building a new K-9 facility that includes a kennel and lodging for the handlers and we're also procuring protective bunkers and a communications conduit so [our communications experts] can run the defense biometrics identification system and other communications."

The Titusville, Penn. native, deployed from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., said her shop's days are pretty full between the hour-long daily commute and with their everyday duties.

"We're usually very busy as just two of us are the contracting focal point here," she said. "We manage seven service contracts such as dining facility operations, custodial and bottled water, in addition to working other types of contracts. We also conduct site visits, order items for units and work to close out old contracts."

As with all jobs, Sergeant Wakefield admitted that her unit does face obstacles from time to time.

"The base entry procedures for contractors have proven to be a challenge at times as well as the language barrier we sometimes face with our contractors," she said. "Some of the contractors don't speak English and it's difficult to tell if they fully understand what we're saying to them at times. This can definitely be a challenge."

Now in her fourth year in the contracting career field, Sergeant Wakefield, a 10-year Air Force veteran, said there are a few important attributes every CCO must possess in order to be successful.

"Organization is foremost," she said, "followed by good multi-tasking and the desire for continuous learning. Contracting officials work hard and I don't think people realize the magnitude of work that we put into each contract with both time and resources."

Sergeant Hoh added that the experience and knowledge contracting officers gain through their interactions with various units is also an important factor in their professional development.

"In contracting you gain a broad general knowledge of pretty much every [Air Force Specialty Code] and what their mission is and how they support it," he said. "A lot of times we'll get equipment and we have no idea what it is, but over the course of purchasing it we learn a lot about it, how it works and what it does."

This same theory translates to the team's interactions with contractors downrange.

"I want to thank the hundreds of contractors that support our mission here," said Major McCabe, a Venice, Fla. native. "They are so often overlooked and taken for granted. We need to recognize their hard work and sacrifice to the mission. Some hail from the United States, but many travel from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to support their families at home and in challenging conditions to say the least. Their service is commendable and appreciated. I encourage folks to take a moment and shake their hands, say 'thank you'. These gestures will go a long way and truly demonstrate our values as American Airmen."