Author James Sherman once wrote, "You can't go back and make a new start, but you can start right now and make a brand-new ending."
For Mohammed Maaroof, an Iraqi native and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Transatlantic Expeditionary District electrical engineer, growing up in Baghdad would not define how his life would turn out or end.
"My life started to change when the U.S. forces showed up in Iraq in 2003," Maaroof said. "I began working as a locally contracted interpreter, initially with the Marines. When the Marines moved north, I worked with a U.S. Army public affairs unit, helping with local media and translations."
For six years, Maaroof would work for defense contractors that supported U.S. forces in Iraq. He was either inside the fortified green zone in Baghdad, at the airfield at Taji, or supporting convoys to outlying forward operating bases as an interpreter, translator, or working logistical support as a purchase agent.
Having received a bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering in 1998 from Baghdad's University of Technology, Maaroof always looked for jobs more suited to his specialty.
"From 2009-2012, I worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) as a local contractor project engineer and quality assurance inspector at Taji (Al-Taji airfield)," Maaroof said. "I really enjoyed my time with USACE."
It was Maaroof's service with U.S. forces and that engineering assignment with the Corps of Engineers that would shape and influence his future path in life.
Maaroof was also trying to remove his family from a potentially dangerous situation in Iraq as more and more people in his community knew he was working for the U.S. forces, traveling in and out of the green zone and moving between bases to check on projects. Many felt he might be spying on them.
After he was held at gunpoint and his car stolen, he knew he needed to alter the course of his life.
Time For Change
"In 2012, I was working with the Army Corps of Engineers, and at that point, I applied for my visa based on my work providing services to the U.S. government, to the Marines, the Army, and with defense contractors," he said.
Later that year, after his visa was approved, he and his family moved to San Diego, Calif., where a different life, different community, and different culture awaited them.
"That was a new start for us," he said. "I wanted this to happen because when I was working with U.S. government and people, I liked what they were doing, I liked their culture, their community, the way they are living, the American system, so I wanted to be part of that."
While working as a project engineer for Navy Facilities Engineering Systems Command in San Diego, Maaroof took classes and, in 2016, was awarded his Master's in Electrical Engineering degree from National University.
"I was working inside Navy bases all over San Diego, and I was doing the same kind of work I had previously done with the Corps of Engineers," he said. "That's why I liked that job."
After nine years of working for contractors in Southern California, Maaroof wanted to make his work with the U.S. government more permanent.
"I was waiting to get my U.S. citizenship to apply for government positions because, without that, I could not apply," he said. "I had to wait five years to submit my application, and then wait another year before I got my U.S. citizenship … that was about 2018."
Always looking to better himself and his situation, in early 2020, Maaroof joined the world of federal jobseekers, scouring USAJOBS postings for civil service jobs.
"I missed my days working with the Corps back in Iraq," said Maaroof. "I thought I would be more effective if I went to someplace like the Middle East where I could provide service better than anywhere else since I speak the language, know the environment, and am a professional engineer."
Maaroof looked for, and luckily found, a job announcement for an electrical engineer position with the Army Corps of Engineers’ Middle East District in Winchester, Va.
"I applied for it, went through the process, was interviewed, and they submitted me a tentative offer," he said. "I was very happy."
Thomas Stephenson, a senior mechanical engineer with the Middle East District, remembered when he interviewed Maaroof for the position.
"We were recruiting for an electrical engineer for our Small Designs Branch in the Engineering Division of the Middle East District," Stephenson said. "His experience and background in electrical systems designs were the primary reasons for our interest in him. As a bonus, his experience included working with our contractors in Iraq as a local national, along with his experience in a contingency environment. I knew those qualifications would be of great value to the future success of our mission."
Maaroof accepted the offer but still had to go through the complex security clearance process. In late 2020, after receiving his clearance, he was officially offered the job.
"They called me just at the end of 2020 and said I was cleared; come on board, we are waiting for you," Maaroof said. "That was nice!"
In January 2021, Maaroof started working at the Middle East District.
"Although not a requirement for the position, his fluent knowledge of Arabic and familiarity with Middle East culture are also added values that he brings to the mission," Stephenson said.
Volunteering for Deployment
That fluency in language and culture would benefit District projects as Maaroof, not even a year into his civil service career, found himself in a pre-deployment training classroom at Camp Atterbury, Indiana. He had responded to an internal Army Corps of Engineers email asking for volunteers to deploy to support the newly established Transatlantic Expeditionary District, located at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait.
"That came from thinking that I wanted to be more effective, to better serve my new country," Maaroof said. "Since I would be in the region, knowing the culture and language, I feel I could provide better services and be more effective in my work to the Army Corps of Engineers and to my country."
Since deploying to the Expeditionary District, Maaroof's knowledge of language and culture have played a vital role in enabling complex projects to meet timelines and construction coordination for mission success.
Brian Johnson, the Chief of the Engineering Branch at the Expeditionary District, found his expertise and language skills invaluable in supporting the district's mission in one of the most complex construction environments in the world.
"He worked with Department of Public Works staff from the Area Support Group – Kuwait, and Army Central Command, on developing the scopes and designs for eight electrical distribution projects in Kuwait," Johnson said. "He also worked on three ERCIP (Energy Resilience and Conservation Investment Program) projects for Camp Arifjan and Camp Buehring that we are designing in-house. In addition, he has worked on the electrical portions of designs in Iraq and Syria, supporting our stakeholders and forces in theater."
When asked about all the complex projects he's worked on since deploying, Maaroof was proudest of "Using my engineering skills to design the ERCIP 2022-2023 projects and set a path for future ones, using microgrid renewable energy."
Maaroof not only coordinated with local Army offices and commands but complex projects like this also required extensive coordination with the Kuwaiti Ministry of Electrical and Water to connect military installations to the local electrical grid.
During his deployment he also accomplished his professional goal of getting his Programs and Project Management certification.
Reflecting on his road to the Corps
Looking back to his citizenship ceremony in 2018, when Maaroof raised his hand and took the oath of citizenship for his adopted country, he knew this was a new start that would forever change his ending and that of his family’s.
"I feel like I belong to this country more than I belong to Iraq," he said. "Although I spent more than 37 years of my life in Iraq, and only the last 11 years here in the USA, I feel I belong to the U.S. as a country, as a community, as a system of living."
Mohammed Maaroof, who walked a path overcoming challenges, struggles and conflicts, has indeed come full circle on his road to the Corps, and in doing so, wrote a new ending to his life.
Editor's note: The Transatlantic Expeditionary District is one of two districts in the Army Corps of Engineers Transatlantic Division which provide engineering and construction solutions throughout the U.S. Central Command's area of responsibility in support of U.S. military forces and our nation's allied mission partners.