His visibility is fairly clear, upwards of 30 feet, in fresh, clean and fairly warm water – a stark difference from what he’s used to in the Columbia River. That water has less visibility, maybe 10 feet, and the water temperature is anything but comfortable, even with a dry suit. And although the underwater conditions in the Tigris River are more pleasant than the Columbia River, the conditions above the surface are much, much more ominous.
Richard Benoit, Portland District dive team proponent and program manager, has been deployed for more than a year, first to Afghanistan and now to Iraq. This is his seventh overseas deployment, but his first to the Middle East, where he is serving as the Corps’ dive safety officer and dive safety inspector for the Mosul Dam rehabilitation and repair project.
“In my opinion, there are greater risks associated with being deployed in Afghanistan,” said Benoit. “I would say the risk to us at Mosul Dam from ISIS is ever present, but minimal,” Benoit reiterated. “By comparison to the many dives I’ve done, this is easy.”
Benoit is working at the same Mosul Dam the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad issued warnings about in February 2016.
“Mosul Dam faces a serious and unprecedented risk of catastrophic failure with little warning,” read the embassy’s statement. “Recognizing the gravity of this challenge, the Iraqi government under Prime Minister Abadi’s leadership is preparing to take actions to mitigate the potential threat of the dam’s failure, particularly following the Da’esh (ISIS) attack on the facility in August 2014.”
Although ISIS is still a risk, the dam faces other challenges, which is why Benoit is there in the first place. One such challenge is brought up in an article by Dexter Filkins. According to The New Yorker writer, “Completed in 1984, the dam sits on a foundation of soluble rock. To keep it stable, hundreds of employees have to work around the clock, pumping a cement mixture into the earth below.”
But that isn’t the only problem at the dam.
Benoit is part of the bottom outlet team. The team inspects a pair of underwater tunnels, which regulates water depth in Lake Dahuk, the upstream reservoir, and the Tigris River, downstream. The team is evaluating the tunnels’ structural integrity as well as performing hydraulic steel structure inspections on bulkheads and checking the functionality of bulkhead slots.
This is the first inspection of these tunnels since the dam’s commissioning 30 years ago and has been memorable for Benoit.
“(It’s been) tough at times especially on my family - but overall exceptional,” said Benoit. “I would recommend this experience to anyone.” Benoit said he primarily volunteered for this particular deployment to fulfill a personal sense of duty and responsibility. Another reason is to honor two family friends, Army Staff Sgt. Brandon Silk who was killed in action June 21, 2010, in Afghanistan and Edward Maloney who was killed Sept. 11, 2001, during the World Trade Center attacks.
Benoit will have been deployed for a total of 16 months before he returns from stateside. His other deployments include emergency response missions to Haiti and Bangladesh, and diving missions to Japan and South Korea.