With a degree in TV broadcasting, Rex Symank, 66, once planned to share the evening news; four decades later, the carpenter from Terrebonne, Ore., is sharing architectural carpentry skills and Dalai Lama quotations with a younger generation on the U.S. military’s largest-ever base-construction project.
Since starting with Michael Baker International in 2014, Symank has worked on projects in Vienna and Oslo. His latest global stop is Pyeongtaek, South Korea, where the design-builder is about to complete a new security communications center at the $10.7-billion Camp Humphreys Army Base, south of Seoul, that itself is nearly finished.
Symank’s global travels extend back more than a dozen years, when he worked for contractor KBR on U.S. military camps in Bahrain and in Fallujah, Al Assad and Al Diwaniyah, Iraq.
“The international scene is loaded with people searching for a new adventure,” says Chris Simons, Symank’s South Korea project superintendent, although the significant tax benefits for U.S. nationals “is what keeps people returning to this line of work every year.” Simons himself is a 10-year expatriate, “visiting or living in more than 70 countries,” he says.
In his work, Symank most appreciates being able to “create dwellings and facilities that will long outlast me.” But “logistics issues” in non-U.S. work such as material deliveries "held up by Customs" prevent projects from progressing in a linear path, he says, so “you really don’t get to see the appreciation the client has for your work because you’re moved to the next job.”
Symank says he has not been involved in any overseas jobsite accidents, but he “saw the aftermath of a colleague getting run over with a 40-ton forklift in Al-Assad.” The nonunion carpenter enjoys “having the chance to assimilate into another culture,” noting recent visits to the War Memorial of Korea and the Gyeongbokgung Palace, both in Seoul.
Symank laments the time away from his wife of 37 years and his family, which now includes four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. A family history in construction for the native Texan was the pull that “allowed my summer job to become my profession,” he says. “My grandfather and Uncle Otto built the firehouse in Crawford that George W. Bush votes in.”
Symank rules out retirement “in my near future—even my father is still working at age 87.”
Says the veteran carpenter: "I believe I’m going to finish my career doing exactly what I’m already doing, and if I get tired or bored with it, I’ll start a brewery."
He says a big job reward is being able to teach younger workers skills “no longer taught in schools and viewing their own satisfaction in completing a task that they thought they were incapable of doing.”
He adds, “The Dalai Lama once said, ‘Share knowledge. It is a way to achieve immortality.’ ”
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