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6th CONS handles construction projects, front line battles

by Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt staff writer
Photo by Nick Stubbs

Lt. Col. Richard Fuentes (center right) says few realize the contribution of the 6th Contracting Squadron to the war effort. Seen here at a meeting in Iraq last year, at one point 33 percent of his squad was deployed, the highest of any unit on base, he said.

Photo by Nick Stubbs

Lt. Col. Richard Fuentes, commander 6th Contracting Squadron, armed and ready to convoy in Iraq last year. Flack vest and M-16 were standard gear when negotiating contracts in a war zone.

Photo by Nick Stubbs

Stephen Colton is wheelchair-bound but has boundless opportunities at the Contracting Squadron, where he rapidly advanced to the position of buyer.

Much is made of the high cost of rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan, but few realize MacDill's 6th Contracting Squadron has been playing a significant role in just how the money is being spent.

It's a job 6th CONS members are prepared for, managing a contract load at MacDill that puts it in the top 10 bases in all the Air Force. Frequently deployed to the Middle East to assist in managing supply and rebuilding efforts, at one point last year 33 percent of the squadron was deployed, making it the highest deployment rate of any unit on base.

Members generally are attached to the U.S. Army to oversee purchases of gear and supplies as well as help rebuild war-ravaged infrastructure. Lt. Col. Richard Fuentes, commander of the squadron, was a contracting officer in charge of security acquisitions and equipping the new Iraqi Army. His war stories include daily mortar attacks, attending financial meetings slinging an M-16 over his flack gear and perhaps most interestingly, being able to spend former dictator Saddam Hussein's money to help rebuild a new, free Iraq.

But as anyone in Colonel Fuentes' line of business can tell you, freedom isn't free.

Home at MacDill, the 6th CONS is used to multi-million dollar budgets. Rapid expansion and base improvements, coupled with supporting U.S. Central Command, U.S. Special Operations Command, Special Operations Command Central and Avon Park, among others, is the reason. But doing the same job in a war zone like Iraq is considerably more challenging.

To put things in perspective, a simple contract to rebuild Hangar Loop Drive at MacDill might come in at $300,000. Rain delays might be a factor in delaying the work, perhaps even a hurricane threat or two pushing it over budget for the contractor.

But imagine the crew working on Hangar Loop being bombarded by mortar shells and daily sniper fire, perhaps a worker or two being kidnapped and later executed.

"Building a wall here might take a month and $10,000," said Colonel Fuentes. "In Iraq the same wall might cost $50,000 and take five times as long.

"It's just the nature of the situation," he said, adding that one of the contractors with which he worked in Iraq lost an employee to kidnapping and eventually execution by beheading. These high risk tend to add to the cost of projects.

Still, amidst the unrest and threats, there is plenty of competition for work in Iraq and the Middle East, said Colonel Fuentes, and deployed 6th Contracting personnel have been able to benefit from competitive bidding in Afghanistan, Kuwait and other parts of the Middle East.

"The contractors know the risks and they factor that in when bidding," said Colonel Fuentes, who notes that all the same rules and requirements for bidding and awarding contracts followed at MacDill are used overseas.

Following procedure is essential, as many eyes are trained on the money and how it is being spent. Being able to stand up to scrutiny is the standard to which all contracting officers adhere. Contract officers also must always be conscious of appearances and work diligently to avoid anything that could be perceived to be favoritism.

"I'm very proud of my people and the job they do here (at MacDill) and deployed," he said. "Everyone is professional and ethical in everything they do."

The 6th Contracting Squadron is authorized for 63 personnel - 36 active duty and 27 civilian - and currently has a staff of 57. Made up of buyers, contracting agents and administrative personnel, the office is conveniently located in the same building as the 6th CONS. The two are linked via sophisticated management and tracking software to keep up with the many contracts let by MacDill.

A basic construction project at MacDill provides the experience and training squadron members have been able to employ while deployed.

A typical MacDill project begins by being deemed worthy by wing leadership. The 6th Civil Engineer Squadron takes the ball from there, working from its budget and planning the work. The 6th CPTS gets involved on the financial end followed by the 6th CONS looking for a suitable company to do the work.

A fully transparent bidding system is employed, in which jobs are advertised and large and small companies are invited to bid. More than price can be a factor in awarding projects, including the bidding company's performance history and qualifications, particularly if the contract is for specialized work or services.

The final step is legal review by the Judge Advocate office to make sure everything was done within the bounds of rules and the law.

Only certified contracting officers may award contracts and the system is tiered, with Colonel Fuentes at the top tier and able to award the highest value contracts. Five others in the squadron are authorized to award contracts of descending value.

Colonel Fuentes said the Air Force has a real edge in contracting expertise. It places an emphasis on the specialty, starting with second lieutenants when compared to other branches that often begin with captains. He notes most of the contracting officers in Middle Eastern hot zones are Air Force officers, and many from the higher ranks, ensuring a capable force in the critical area of keeping multi-million-dollar projects on track.

"Not only are foreign governments depending on these contracts, often it is our own troops," said Colonel Fuentes, who procured up-armored vehicles, Kevlar vests and ammo for Iraqi and U.S. forces while in Iraq. "A lot depends on what we do and the 6th Contracting Squadron is proud to be a part of it."

The job has been made easier by willing suppliers of gear and services who have healthy attitudes and high ethics, said Colonel Fuentes. Many companies want to help supply the war effort and despite the stereotype of war profiteers, the reality is quality is high, customer support excels and the prices are right. In many cases companies mark down goods or provide upgrades at no additional cost, he said. All understand the importance of honest dealing, and while there have been some exceptions the vast majority of businesses today understand the importance of propriety, said Colonel Fuentes.

When the 6th CONS is tapped with deployments, the capable civilian staff fills the voids at home. Stephen Colton joined the squadron in May 2004. He worked his way up to buyer quickly and now deals with many local vendors who supply MacDill. He makes a point of trying to provide as many different suppliers with base business as possible providing they all meet standards of approval for price, quality and service.

"We don't like to favor any one company," he notes. "We spread it around."

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