Somewhere in Afghanistan, retired Army Major General Dan Balough’s jeep lurches to a halt. “I heard that distinctive pop, and in a flash the entire sky turned black,” he recalls. One of the trucks of his convoy had just been blown up, a little bit behind him.

Fast forward a few weeks to the Giants-Patriots Super Bowl. From the calm of your couch, you watch as your screen flashes a wall of camouflage uniforms. At the Afghanistan Forward Operating Base, Camp Leatherneck, America’s armed troops are simultaneously watching the gridiron combat. They stand and salute as the National Anthem is sung.

This globe-spanning video stream, along with countless salvos of tactical missives, is brought to the U.S. military courtesy of the Mission 1st Group, newly headquartered in Princeton Forrestal Village.

Mission 1st relocated to Princeton from Fort Monmouth after it began dealing with other, broader military units. According to CEO Richard Zareck, they felt they needed the stronger business presence that Princeton could provide.

Armies travel on information. When the U.S. troops are set down in a high-risk, front line area, they hire out a systems engineering and technical assistance (SETA) contractor like Mission 1st to make sure everyone can connect with everyone else. Upon winning a contract, Zareck with his COO, General Balough, design the job and select staff members. Then Balough goes onsite and gathers the rest of the crew who engineer and implement the vital telecom links.

“It’s a lot like your hometown’s communications network,” explains Zareck. But it’s a town where all the citizens stroll the streets armed to the teeth; and where the electric lines get buried deep underground and encased in cement because they’re just a lot harder to blow up that way.

“We, and the Army, take many precautions. It’s not really dangerous,” insists Balough. Of course, he admits that for a West Pointer whose military experience was launched as leader of a reconnaissance platoon in the jungles of Vietnam, his perspective on danger might differ from most folks’.

The staff of the M1 Group, creating military connectivity amid such hotspot theaters as Iran, Iraq, Kabul, and Kuwait, are in full accord with their COO’s perspective. More than 80 percent of the 40 field scientists and engineers have served in some branch of the service. “The rest are mostly army brats who understand the situation,” says Balough.

Via his company’s lines, Balough is calling Zareck and this reporter in Princeton from Camp Arifjan, in the eastern coastal area of Kuwait. The U.S. Army established the camp in 2004, during the second Gulf War. Recently mantled with the chief operating officer duties, Balough keeps a continual survey of the eight current Mission 1st job sites. “Rich (Zareck) used to have me five to eight months in the field — now at least I get to come home more often,” he laughs.

When in the field, Balough shares the “comparatively Hiltonesque” quarters of a pod — Conex shipping containers, which provide tenants an 18 by 18 living space. If he is fortunate enough to have a “wet pod” that means there’s basic plumbing inside.

If not, hopefully an “ablution pod” with such necessities not too far from his door. “We just cut holes in them for windows and wires. If we need more we stack ‘em like Legos,” says Balough. “It’s really very straightforward, and planned.” Sure. What could possibly go wrong?

Hitting the beach. The business of business is handling unexpected change. And when you are working in foreign, less-than-friendly land where those who may not like you are very well armed, the unexpected can be a bit more problematic.

“Often when we come into a new base, it’s the real Wild West,” says Zareck. “The military has no protected place for us, and they have to put us up in ‘safe houses,’ which are only hotels with a military guard.” Meanwhile the Mission 1st team begins its work, as best as possible.

“As the base gets laid out, then begins the contractors’ feeding frenzy,” says Balough. “Everyone squabbles for their piece to be big and close to the center — to headquarters.” Contractors supplying food, PX, or basic uniform equipment generally get the close-in spots, leaving communications to grab something on the fringe.

Since the American Revolution, contractor groupies have strung along as camp followers, seeking whatever bread crumbs they might gnaw off from the nation’s war machine. Railroad financiers James Fiske and Jay Gould launched their fortunes by stealing and selling confiscated Confederate cotton as the Civil War ended.

“The Army has done a lot better now with contractors than they used to,” notes Balough. Gone are the days when one could just follow the camp. Today all potential contractors are vetted and given security clearances. “Of course, we still have abuses,” says Zareck. “We see those few who overcharge outrageously — who don’t deliver — and it makes us cringe.”

Voice to the troops. There stands a giant step between Mission 1st Group’s being awarded the contract from the Pentagon, and starting to lay out the satellite feeds. First, the team must win approval from the base commander.

“You think you are going to lay pipe THERE?” This is where having a highly honored West Pointer — like retired Major General Balough — on your team, certainly helps. As Zareck puts it, they can “roam in much higher level circles, with more authority, than might otherwise be possible.”

Easy going and experienced, Balough is an ideal man to pull up a chair and chat with a base commander. A “trigger puller by education,” Balough grew up influenced by a very practical father who managed a U.S. steel plant, and an uncle who earned his Silver Star on WW II’s Pork Chop Hill.

After graduating from West Point in 1969 and several front line combat missions in Vietnam, Balough stayed with the military in the U.S. Army’s 3rd Cavalry Division. On the side, he earned his law degree from the University of California.

The final eight years of his career, Balough moved into the reserves as assistant, then commander of the 91st “Wild West” Division. Using his own 4,000 troops, he set up field exercises for several divisions at a time.

“We had several Medal of Honor winners in this division — along with many memorials I visited in Belgium from WW I and Florence, Italy, in WW II,” Balough states. In 2006 Balough joined the newly launched Mission 1st Group.

Once approval is wrangled and specifics are understood, Mission 1st begins staff selection. “Often, as through all Afghanistan, we face a ‘Hire Locals First’ policy,” says Balough. “And this makes it tough. A lot of time their companies just don’t have the skill, understanding, or equipment to do what we need done.”

In the end, the M1 team will bring each worker and equipment operator on board and train them very specifically. Though an extended, often painstaking effort, this process actually fits into America’s political aims perfectly of bringing the people to a level of economic self sufficiency.

Meanwhile, the land and its residents seldom make things easy. In Kabul, Afghanistan, (elevation 5,600 feet) and just north in Bagram Army/Air Force base (elevation 6,000 feet), the pipes keep freezing.

The road may go red due to terrorist activity, and all incoming supplies halt. Incoming fire sirens may sound, similarly halting all construction. “Mountain passes close,” says Balough. “That’s just a fact of life here. I know the military needs its communication system yesterday, but you have to deal with it.”

When the conditions are overcome, the satellite carriers are installed and the lines laid protectively underground, most of the communication messages involve the ceaseless exchange of tactical information. But there is also some satisfying, more personal connections. “Watching loved ones communicate from over seas. Seeing a man stationed in Kuwait talk to his new born son in Wisconsin, that’s pretty gratifying,” says Zareck.

Also part of the West Point’s Long Grey Line, Zareck graduated in 1991, with a degree in computer science, which led to his positions as fire support officer (guiding artillery gunners) and division information manager. Augmenting his education Zareck took an MBA from Columbia University, with mathematics and economics specialties. He then plied his information skills in several private firms including the global communications supplier, Anixeter.

“Having worked at PCR Corporation (a computer rental and repair company that went out of business in the early 1990s) with Marty Tuchman,” says Zareck, “I feel as if my return to Princeton has brought me full circle.

Zareck first set out the idea of Mission 1st in 2004, cleverly placing ownership in the hands of his African-American wife, Augustine. “We were hoping to take advantage of the government’s minority and woman-owned quotas,” Zareck says. “But we have grown so fast that that no longer seems to be an issue.”

Today, Mission 1st’s largest issue is keeping up with the jobs offered. Despite the pressing need for more contracts, each field operative receives six to eight full weeks of paid vacation time. It affords the scientists and engineers an opportunity to retrain and maintain their professional certifications at home.

But this paid leave also provides something greater: the chance to see one’s family, to walk down a trail, or look at an outcrop with the children, without considering the potential protection it may afford a lethal sniper.

It is good to have troops communicate with their families. For the people of Mission 1st it’s a business with a purpose.

Mission 1st Group Inc., 155 Village Boulevard, Princeton Forrestal Village, Suite 203, Princeton 08540; 609-520-1900; fax. Richard Zareck, CEO. www.mission1st.com.

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