WOODSTOCK – Kevin Charles relishes a challenge.
Charles, 39, is a construction engineer for the McHenry County Division of Transportation and a combat engineer officer in the Illinois National Guard, where he holds the rank of captain.
Raised in St. Lucia, he immediately joined the Virgin Islands Army National Guard in 1994 after moving to St. Croix.
"For some reason, I always wanted to be a soldier," he said. "The first thing I did was join the U.S. military."
Not surprisingly, basic training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina came as a shock after growing up in the West Indies.
"Coming from St. Lucia, I had never seen a weapon – only in movies," he said. "I couldn't shoot to save my life. I was always the last one at the range."
But his marksmanship eventually improved. He attended New York State Officer Candidate School and was commissioned in 2001.
Charles has since completed four tours in Afghanistan. There he helped expand the Kandahar Airfield and tracked the use of improvised explosive devices to plan safe travel routes. On later tours with the Army Corps of Engineers, he oversaw more than $240 million in construction projects near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The projects included building roads, schools, airfields, and border patrol stations.
In 2011, he was awarded the Bronze Star for his work in support of Operation Enduring Freedom while serving as the Sharana Resident Office representative for the Afghanistan Engineer District-North.
"Personally, I think I did a decent job, but was it deserving of a Bronze Star?" he said. "My superiors thought so, but would I give myself a Bronze Star for what I did? Probably not."
Before Charles took over, soldiers couldn't get out to oversee the projects the Army Corps of Engineers was paying contractors to build.
"They had no way of setting eyes on those projects," he said.
Corruption is a major problem in Afghanistan and some contractors would submit pay requests for work that hadn't been completed.
"I actually found ways to get our guys out to those projects," Charles said. "It was dangerous, but we were able to actually see what was going on."
That allowed the Army Corps of Engineers to be more efficient with the money it spent, he said.
Charles has worked on several road projects in McHenry County since joining the Division of Transportation in 2006.
When asked about recent accomplishments, Charles said he was most proud of his work on the $1.36 million Blivin Street Bridge Replacement Project in Spring Grove.
The project was hampered by utility relocation issues and other setbacks. The contractor hit a high-pressure gas line in September 2011, which prompted authorities to close Spring Grove Elementary School for a day. Crews also ran into an aquifer, which created further obstacles for engineers.
Charles embraced these problems and worked to find solutions.
"I expect challenges – that's what I love about engineering," he said. "It wasn't your regular road paving project. It's easy putting a drawing on paper, but going out and building it is a lot more challenging."
At St. John's University in New York, Charles spent his first two years studying accounting before deciding to switch to engineering. He said he couldn't handle dressing up and reporting to an office every day.
"I'm more of a field person. That's why I love the military," he said. "I'm not an office guy."
Charles was nominated for the "Best Under 40" award by his wife, Irma, who wrote "his actions reflect distinct credit upon him, the United States Army, the people of Afghanistan, the state of Illinois, and McHenry County."
A proclamation approved by the McHenry County Board last year said Charles's "dedication to public service in McHenry County and to the United States of America
Occupation: Construction engineer with the McHenry County Division of Transportation and combat engineer officer with the Illinois Army National Guard
Residence: Lake in the Hills
Hometown: St. Lucia, West Indies
Family: Wife, Irma Charles
Education: Bachelor's degree, civil engineering, Polytechnic Institute of New York University; master's of business administration, Northcentral University. Currently working toward a doctorate in engineering and technology management
Favorite McHenry County restaurant? Outback Steakhouse in Crystal Lake
Favorite movie? "Gladiator"
One word that describes you? Optimistic