Michael SousaMichael Sousa
Gilbane Building Co., Providence, R.I.
Veteran builder set new standards for construction quality and nation-building in Afghanistan in completing a high-risk project he didn’t want to take on.

Afghanistan’s new Ministry of Defense headquarters in Kabul was supposed to symbolize the nation’s future—and U.S. support in that effort—as a self-sustaining, sophisticated structure akin to the Pentagon. But U.S. funding shortfalls stretched an anticipated 18-month project, which began in 2009, into years. While experienced in running projects in an underdeveloped country in which terror attacks and unstable regional politics are routine, Gilbane Building Co. Project Executive Michael P. Sousa wanted no part of this one in 2013, when he first toured it. “The structure was in a severe state of disrepair and riddled with poor construction,” he says, terming it “an embarrassment” to the U.S. government.

But U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Harold Greene, then commander in Afghanistan, personally requested Sousa to manage the project before signing the fixed-price contract with Gilbane. Despite reservations, “one does not say no to a major general of the U.S. Armed Forces,” says Sousa, who convinced the contractor to support a more expensive value-engineering effort to expedite work and reduce risks. These were realized five days after Gilbane signed the contract in 2014, when Greene was killed in a “green on blue” attack by an Afghan soldier at another U.S.-built site in Kabul.

“We were impacted by hostilities at every turn every day,” says Sousa. These challenges included travel to the worksite by expats and local workers, which numbered up to 1,000 at peak. Terror attacks targeting foreigners required constantly changing off-site travel schedules and frequent evacuation drills. Difficult U.S. relations with neighboring Pakistan stranded equipment shipments, and insurgent hijacking of en route materials added to costs and delays, says Sousa. The executive countered local workers’ and subs’ ignorance of U.S. safety and quality standards through safety incentives and by working closely with expats.

By early 2016, the 414,000-sq-ft structure, which has its own power generation and water and wastewater treatment facilities, as well as 11 other structures, was turned over months ahead of schedule—a project Sousa terms “financially successful.” In a hand-scrawled note added to a letter to Gilbane CEO Michael McKelvy, Maj. Gen. Todd Semonite, who succeeded Greene and now is Army Corps of Engineers national commander, said the contractor “performed magnificently” and praised the team’s “professional approach.”

Semonite, who says he visited the project site 15 times in 13 months in his Afghanistan deployment, says the headquarters is "not just a building...to the people of Afghanistan, they look at it as a monument to the freedom they fought for... and the chance of a better quality of life."

Adds Semonite: "Mike was a hero here."

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