A Soldier's Story: Delivering Water in War and Peace

Army veteran John Dorris once protected water convoys in Iraq — now he's a treatment plant operator near Denver
A Soldier's Story: Delivering Water in War and Peace
John Dorris got his water-operations training at Fort Lee in Virginia before his deployment to Iraq. Now he oversees the performance of a small Colorado city's wastewater treatment plant.

On a hot day in March 2005, Army E-4 Specialist John Dorris rode security through the war-torn streets of Baghdad, protecting a convoy whose reverse-osmosis water purification units (ROWPU) and re-supply cargo were always vulnerable to attack.

As the lumbering vehicles approached an overpass, they ran headlong into a bottleneck created by insurgents who had blocked an off-ramp with a broken down tractor-trailer. As the convoy slowed, a sudden and fierce assault with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and AK-47s burst out, seemingly from every side.

Even as they returned fire, our soldiers mustered the training and discipline to block opposing traffic — clearing a path for their heavy equipment to jump the median and weave over to the exit ramp on the other side of the road. The imprecise (and fortunately inaccurate) “spray and pray” attack of the insurgents was over in a dilated matter of seconds. Clearing the heavy equipment took far longer, creating an awkward traffic jam in the debilitating heat, with the gun trucks flanking and following like Mad Max cowboys on a weird wagon train.

The convoy, however, was eventually able to get back underway, relatively unscathed, to fulfill its mission of delivering food, gear, and perhaps equally important, equipment for filtering drinking water.

Army veteran John Dorris and his comrades in Iraq.

Transporting water in war-torn Iraq

John had been water-operations trained at Fort Lee in Virginia, before his deployment to Iraq. By March 2005, it had been two years since the horrific nights of “shock and awe” had launched the war that toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime, having mixed results in trying to end decades of internal conflict and sectarian violence.

Iraq was, in many ways, a wasteland where water was the only commodity scarcer than peace. And, perhaps more than any other single factor, struggles over control of water supplies proved to be a major impediment to long-term unity.

Army Specialist (SPC) John and his teammates had been thrust into the center of that storm.

Often they would transport troops in convoys of high-mobility Humvees. First widely deployed in the first Gulf War, the Humvee is a high-tech, heavily armored descendant of the venerable WWII Jeep. Built low and outfitted with three-inch glass designed to absorb even a direct hit from an RPG, the Humvee is a 21st century armada and safe-harbor rolled into one.

John was a fixture atop a Humvee manning his machine gun turret — drawing duty that was both unimaginably hazardous and universally esteemed — a blanket of protection over the convoys resolutely shuttling between Baghdad and Fallujah.

Typically they would camp during the awful 120-degree heat of day, waiting for dusk, the cover of darkness and cooler temperatures that served to make a mission at least bearable.

In that searing heat of daytime, doors and hatches were propped open, and troops slept in their vehicles, or in hammocks strung in the shade of a tanker-trailer. SPC John once found himself bivouacking inside a four-foot sewer pipe, cradling his M-249, trying to catch an elusive moment of rest with enemy mortar fire roaring just outside.

“It was routing. Another mission accomplished, another one on deck.”

A wartime water treatment plant

After nearly a year in security, John’s team was charged with providing reverse-osmosis water purification out of the back of an Army truck — the ROWPU acting essentially as a mobile water treatment plant.

A rough-cut guy, his upper lip then sporting a no-nonsense Sgt. Slaughter mustache, he found himself confronting Sisyphean labor in providing clean and disinfected water to the troops — water to drink, water to bathe their bodies and non-potable water used to rinse away the wind-blown Iraqi sands that invaded every crevice of their vehicles and equipment.

John had a unique vantage point — a mere 30 miles from the Syrian border, surrounded by heroes in body armor. With the time-honored Euphrates River as a source, the water purification unit could generate up to 40,000 gallons of safe drinking water each day. But with former government forces, native Iraqis and Arab/coalition forces each desperately moving to deprive the other of precious water supplies, it was clear that the stakes were high.

The waters of this beleaguered nation were protected stores of commodities under siege — the sprawling Lake Qadisiya or the Tigris flowing into Mosul (formerly Saddam) Dam in the north, along with scores of other reservoirs, lakes, rivers and streams. Competing and sinister forces scrimmaged viciously over dwindling resources, leaving the Iraqi landscape — once merely desolate and arid — now parched by decades of war, despotism, economic sanctions and sabotage.

In the midst of war, water came to be a commodity arguably more precious than food, more indispensable than weapons and more valued than infantry. Ironically though, even in peacetime, the intrinsic value of water is a truth far more pervasive than we might imagine with cities, townships, communities and provincial developments struggling to obtain water sources and to develop the infrastructure to store, deliver and purify it.

Years before he would graduate into the relatively tame confines of a public utility, John was amassing abundant experience in economics, observing the impact of supply and demand on water. And this water was controlled by forces far more dangerous than a drought or rising water rates back in the United States.

Even today the dwindling supply of water in the Mideast plays a key role in ongoing conflicts among Iraq, Syria, ISIS, allies and many others (certainly the Mosul Dam continues to be a pivotal asset sought by ISIS).

It's a common theme in a land defined by the scarcity of water, notes Michael Stephens, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank in Qatar. With rivers, canals, dams, sewage treatment and desalination plants all falling into the crosshairs of military targeting, Stephens told a Baghdad audience recently, water has become “an instrument of war.”

“One could claim that controlling water resources in Iraq is even more important than controlling the oil refineries, especially in summer,” Stephens said. “Control of the water supply is fundamentally important. Cut it off and you create great sanitation and health crises.”

Such crises loom even larger when access to water means more than quenching one's thirst. John’s war experience taught him that he needed to recognize and protect the things that matter — and as a water operator, that translates to safe drinking water.

Safely back at home, former SPC John discovered that communities in North America and around the world are today struggling with profound issues — groundwater, desalination, purification, transportation — and the inevitable human and environmental impacts of each.

“Here in the U.S., to not be shot at or not having to avoid incoming fire makes things a bit easier,” he says. “Water is the most important commodity we have, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s for the troops or the citizens here at home. Supplying water is a skill that’s needed, and it requires a team.”

Even the simplest of plans, however, can go awry. Just as his team reacted skillfully to a roadside ambush in Baghdad, a stateside operator must plan and prepare to cope with water quality issues that may lie in wait 365 days a year, 24/7.

Stateside operations

Once a defender of American citizens from afar, today John delivers drinking water to the residents of a city nestled in the foothills, just west of Denver. Though he has abandoned camouflage fatigues in favor of civvies, he does still proudly bear “O-negative” tattoos on both arms just below the armpits.

The roadblocks he faces today tend to revolve around protecting water quality, and such assaults are far less daunting than the jeopardy he faced daily in deserts half a world away. But if you ask him, the lessons learned in Iraq still ring true; the ability to act quickly and remain flexible still guides his steps every single day. In fact, he says today he feels connected to public safety even more acutely as a water treatment operator.

An aptitude for teamwork and efficiency, tempered in a military forge, now defines the daily conduct of Class A operator John. 

Once he rolled through deadly urban mazes with the unrivaled companionship of Cutty, Ghost, Pop-pop and Sisquo, the quiet of a cooling evening rudely interrupted by the flash and roar of a firefight. Now, a husband and dedicated father of four, he enjoys nothing more than the elusive opportunity to hike a mountain, or take in an evening at the theater.

Today, he helps oversee the performance of a small city’s water treatment plant with a capacity of about 16 million gpd — a far cry from his 40,000-gallon truck siphoning water on the shores of the Euphrates.

The city’s water treatment plant uses a dual-media filtering process to purify surface water drawn from nearby creek. Most modern water treatment plants now use the rapid dual-media filters following coagulation and sedimentation. John is one of six operators along with one mechanic and one superintendent.

“Quite simply, being an operator is a lot like being a goalie,” John says, exchanging a sports analogy for the military metaphor. “To think that water cannot become contaminated is a lot like thinking the opposing team won’t try to score against your team.”

An operator must protect the waters against myriad potential threats to the water supply, anticipating biological contaminants, chemical infiltration, climate, equipment failure or operator error. Foresight. Planning. Flexibility. It all matters.

Even the most creatively insightful operator is unlikely to anticipate a car crashing into a river — and those kinds of events occur occasionally in the city, which sits downstream from a gambling resort. It might be one drink too many or a simply a random patch of ice on a winter road, but the frequency of such incidents is somewhat unique.

A large map on the walls of the water treatment plant plots the creek’s course from the resort to the city’s water intake, allowing operators to coordinate with local police, who maintain an identical map. When a car is found in the river, dispatchers pinpoint the location for water treatment personnel, who then make appropriate preparations to eliminate contaminants from the source water — or, occasionally, shutting off water diversion to the plant entirely while the problem is dealt with.

“Ultimately, if water-safety measures break down, it’s important for the operator to bite the bullet and hit the panic button,” John says. “It’s not about covering your ass. It’s about protecting the public. When we operators don’t do our jobs, people can get sick, be poisoned, and even die. Not on my watch!”

Doing his job, he points out, includes thinking out of the box — like developing teamwork among plant personnel, local government and concerned local citizens as a “three-legged tripod” of protection. Educate them, talk to them and involve them in planning and decision-making. One leg may fail, he says, but if two of the three fall outside the loop of communications, “you're vulnerable.”

John stressed how thankful he is to be working where he is, where the city’s council members enthusiastically work as a team with the community and with the operations.

Such good relations allow John, for example, to get involved with local elementary schools conducting 30-student tours of the local facilities, inviting young people to develop an understanding of the complexities of delivering safe drinking water. Their bodies are all mostly water, he chides them, so they should all be able to “soak up” such information like a sponge.

Another co-op program allows college students and their professors from a local college to create experiments and even entire pilot programs to absorb real-world lessons in water treatment.

“Lots of things can go wrong with water treatment, but one thing that should never go wrong is the operator’s integrity and honesty,” John says. “Even if it’s 3 a.m. and you have to be a pain in the butt to your manager, it’s your sacred duty as the operator to keep any contaminates out of the water.”

One final lesson to be gleaned from military history: On Dec. 7, 1941, U.S. Navy radar operators saw what appeared to be a huge flock of birds, and one officer who mistook the incoming Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor for a squadron of B-17s scheduled to arrive that day delayed a response.

John cautions water operators to never “Pearl Harbor the plant.” — to consider the potential impact of any threat, no matter how small or insignificant it may seem. That approach, he says, just might buy precious seconds and minutes that prove to make all the difference in the world.

References: Water supply key to outcome of conflicts in Iraq and Syria, experts warn, July 2012

About Melanie K. Goetz:

Melanie is a Speaker, AWWA author, and consultant, and specializes in helping utilities convey the value of water. Author of AWWA’s two books on Communicating Water’s Value, she is currently writing a third book: Stories from the Field. For more information, email her at Melanie@HughesStuart.com.


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