Construction project puts engineers back in the saddle
January 12, 2012
JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. -- Sergeant Kristen Collison knows that in the Army being a Soldier comes first.
But today, in a forlorn looking parking lot off the side of an avenue on Lewis-Main, where few driving by even notice her, she's harnessing the engineer in herself.
"Nobody has a job like ours," says the 585th Engineer Company electrician, halfway into a nearly two-month-long project the company welcomed with open arms late last year to assemble a massive shelter alongside Stryker Avenue for Soldiers of JBLM's newest unit, the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade.
A small handful of Soldiers with the company, which specializes in vertical construction, has been working since the beginning of December to construct the foundation for and erect an Expeditionary Forces Aircraft Shelter System, a 115-foot-long, 49-foot-high tent structure the brigade will use as a supply depot for helicopter parts.
The project will finish sometime toward the end of this month.
And for Collison, the noncommissioned officer in charge at the job site, which sits beside Gray Army Airfield, this kind of work is an opportunity seldom afforded in a stateside environment to knock the rust off her engineering skills.
"It's pretty great to actually use our skills, because everybody comes back (from deployment), they're in garrison, and they get in that mode where they get bored and don't like they're job because they're not doing they're job," says Collison, an Edgemere, Md., native. "Then, we get opportunities like this, where we can build a really great building for somebody else who's going to need it -- who's going to use it -- and it's really important to them, so it's an outstanding opportunity."
Civilian contractors and the Department of Public Works carry out most of the construction efforts across JBLM, leaving only a sparse scattering of small-scale jobs to units like the 585th Eng. Co.
With few chances to refresh their construction skills, Collison and her fellow Soldiers are left to their common Soldier tasks.
They clean weapons, they go to the range, they maintain equipment, and they clean the company area. Meanwhile, the skills they developed while training for their occupational specialties fall apart.
"Being home and not doing our job, we get really rusty, so being downrange we're kind of like, 'I'm an electrician and I don't remember how to do switches,'" she says.
Having only two construction opportunities in the year before she deployed to Afghanistan in 2010, Collison, unlike many other Soldiers who train up on their jobs before leaving, had to study for the work that lay ahead of her.
The garrison life for Soldiers in a construction company typically entails very little construction work, says 1st Lt. Thomas Kutnink, a platoon leader with the company who has overseen the project from its start.
But in Iraq or Afghanistan it's a different story.
Kutnink says that pretty much all they do there is build. They build forward operating bases for infantry units. They build checkpoints. They run the electrical, they set up the plumbing.
And they build shelters similar to the one the company is standing up today.
This job, he says, is helping in a very big way to prepare his Soldiers -- most importantly the new ones -- to go downrange and be successful.
"It gives us this great opportunity to do stuff that we don't normally do unless we're downrange," Kutnink says.
"It's something these Soldiers would be a lot more likely to see downrange. We see shelters like this all the time in Afghanistan and Iraq," says Capt. Rex Broderick, the company's commander, also noting that by building the shelter for the 16th CAB his unit is saving the installation more than $1 million -- the cost of hiring civilian contractors to complete the job -- and time.
This is the first time Broderick's company has ever put together an EFASS. And for most of the seven-to-ten Soldiers hammering, drilling and wrenching in this stretch of parking lot, the task is an entirely new prospect.
"This is the first time most of these Soldiers have gotten to train on something like this," says Broderick, a Sandy, Utah, native.
"Construction guys love any opportunity they get to go out and do training on real construction stuff, especially in the garrison side," he says.
"It's a fantastic morale builder."
In the cold, brisk winter air and under a particularly beaming afternoon sun, Soldiers like Spc. Abraham Lamug Jr., a carpentry specialist, are beginning to set the steel framing for the structure into place.
Lamug and his peers are all smiles and laughter as they fit together arches on the ground that will support the shelter.
"I love working with my hands," says Lamug, a Honolulu, Hawaii, native. "That's what I'm here to do."
And after a morning of pulverizing concrete with a rotary hammer drill -- a husky, high-powered tool that can drill in a motion similar to a jackhammer -- his time has been well spent.
"I can't see myself working in an office, so I think I chose the right job doing what I'm doing now."
It's a sight Broderick sums up as a win-win -- a brigade whose shelter will be finished in a timely manner, an installation putting money in its pocket, a unit whose Soldiers are delighted with any chance to get more in touch with their special skills.
"When we're at the company cleaning weapons and doing maintenance on Mondays, it's not the same," Collison says. "It's not the same as coming out here and swinging a hammer or doing some electrical work."
"We came in here to do a job, and we like to do it," she adds. "We like building things, and we like being able to say, 'hey, I just built that, and it looks great.'"
"We want to put our hard work to the test."