DARIEN, Ill. (March 25, 2015) -- Very little conveys the health of an Army unit better than its Soldiers re-enlisting.
In the last two years, more than a fifth of the troops at the 277th Engineer Company (Horizontal) have raised their right hands. Some platoon and squad leaders have been with the company for more than 10 years.
The company is headquartered at Camp Bullis, Texas, and it specializes in pavement construction. Already the unit is over strength with 171 men and women in uniform.
"I would say it starts with the leadership. I really would," said Capt. Vince Frausto, commander of the 277th Engineer Company, living in Laredo, Texas. "It starts with those first-line leaders and mid-level leaders. It also has to do with training as well. Is it interesting? Is it fun? In a budget constraining environment, are we being innovative and creative in how we approach our training objectives. It's that type of training that keeps them coming back over and over again."
There is a special emphasis in the Army Reserve right now to identify units like his: units that promote positive practices and encourage Soldiers to stay. This effort is known as Operation Full Court Press, with a focus on recruiting, retaining and promoting quality Soldiers.
On average, Army Reserve units reach about 53 percent of their retention quotas. The U.S. Army Reserve Command sets these quotas based on each unit's size and the number of Soldiers eligible to re-enlist. The 277th Engineer Company almost doubled its retention goal in 2013 by 181 percent, and surpassed the national average in 2014 by 84 percent.
There are companies out there with even more impressive numbers. Many of them have deployed in recent years, which tends to boost their re-enlistments. The 277th Engineer Company has accomplished these stats through a few simple factors: caring leadership, meaningful training and personal sacrifice.
When it comes to leadership, there are not any new secrets. The Dirt Devils reinforce principles already known throughout the Army: care and communication with Soldiers.
After morning formation, groups of platoon and squad leaders huddled with note pads, addressing their plans for the weekend.
"He's a superstar," one Soldier said during that huddle, pointing at Sgt. Robert Gonzales.
Gonzales humbly shook his head.
"No, no, no," he said, bowing away, face turning red with embarrassment.
The others insisted.
Gonzales is a maintenance squad leader. He invests in his Soldiers both on and off duty. On the civilian side, he is a lube technician for Holt Caterpillar, a heavy construction equipment company. He helped one Soldier apply for a job with the same company. He also pursued another Soldier, who was getting sucked into a life of troubled friends. Gonzales helped pull him away from a drug environment.
"We're pretty much family. I mean, that's all we are," he said.
If he could give advice to other leaders, it would be: "Take that road and make [Soldiers] want to be here. Get to know them a little more. Throw a little more advice on what you would do. Just talk to them. Not just, how's everything going? Okay, cool, bye," he said.
Gonzales was not always this admired leader, however. He remembers being younger, slacking off, not taking the Army life seriously. He was evicted from his apartment, lived from place to place for a while, and lost his car in a wreck.
Then he deployed with the unit in 2009, serving as a gunner and a maintenance Soldier for a mission aimed to rebuild roads, barriers and helipads.
"After deployment ... I knew they got my back. I wanted to be here more and more."
He re-enlisted in 2011 and has been applying himself toward Soldiers, who used to be just like him.
Another squad leader has a mantra when it comes to helping others.
"He's not my Soldier, but he's a Soldier, so I help him even though he's not mine," said Staff Sgt. Raul Martinez, who has spent 19 years with the unit, and a total of 25 in service. He remembers mentoring one Soldier who might have been considered a "lost cause" because he would not apply himself.
The light came on when he watched his peers advance, leaving him behind.
"He looked for help, so I told him, 'Hey that's what I was trying to teach you back then. I'm glad you understand now.' I didn't give up on him ... Now he's with his peers," Martinez said.
That "lost cause" has now been with the unit 12 years.
"It's five minutes [of my time], and that five minutes translates into 10 years of a guy's career. A Soldier's career. Then he turns that and gives it to the next Soldier," he said.
When asked about their favorite training exercise, most Soldiers mentioned Canada without hesitation. They traveled to Happy Valley-Goose Bay in July 2014 for Operation Northern Frontier, where they worked with the Royal Canadian Air Force 5th Wing to pave roadways.
"The innovative readiness training we get are big, especially the one in Canada. I mean that bought us 10 good months of interest [from our] Soldiers ... It was one of the reasons why they signed up: to travel, to see the world, and do something different in uniform," Frausto said.
Even though it was a cold summer in Canada, and mosquitoes surrounded the place, Soldiers said they loved it.
"It was miserable, but at the same time, it was fun. We got to go out there and do our job. We weren't just sitting around in a drill hall. It was a test of my leadership and everyone else's perseverance," said Sgt. Reuben Aleman, who re-enlisted last year.
Aleman was in charge of a small team building a roadway for a bridge. His team did some cross training with another bridging construction team. The rest of the company worked on a pioneer trail through dense vegetation, spanning more than 1 kilometer in length. They hauled more than 1,200 tons of aggregate, which they graded and compacted, making it ready for asphalt.
"The Canadian 5th Wing sent us some pictures of that road, finished, completed, and it snowed for seven months up there, and just to see how well that road was holding up, I think, that leaves an everlasting impression ... We were part of that road. It's something that we did," Frausto said.
In addition to the Goose Bay mission, the Dirt Devils also worked on a 64-acre project, featuring a 32-acre sports complex for a local community project at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. Then in 2013, they improved roads on Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, and they trained 50 Soldiers in combat patrols.
Their March training weekend had a mild start. But on Sunday, the company's maintenance team helped recover a Wrecker vehicle weighing more than 40,000 pounds stuck in the mud. The vehicle belonged to another Army Reserve unit from Houston. The Soldiers and vehicles got filthy and muddy, but they were all smiles once the truck was free.
Sacrifice and commitment in the Army can take many forms. Soldiers sacrifice time away from family, but sometimes that sacrifice involves money.
"Everything I've done in the Army has been for this unit," said Sgt. Anthony Pearson, of San Antonio, who works for an auto insurance company on the civilian side.
At one point, the unit lost its supply sergeant due to a change of station move, and Pearson made the decision to step in. He volunteered and was put on orders for several months to manage the unit's $30-million's worth of equipment.
"It was a pay cut to do the work here, but it was something I needed to be done for the unit. It did put a financial strain on my family, but my wife understands my passion for the military," Pearson said.
If he had to, he would do it all over again, he said. Before taking on the supply position, he was the unit's communications specialist. He took that job, too, because the unit needed him.
"Every role I've taken, I've taken to better the unit ... Anything I can do to help this unit function," he said.
When asked why, he said he does it for his fellow Soldiers.
"The people. The leadership. I've known these guys, the majority of them, since 2003. Some of them are like my father. Some of them are like my brothers and sisters. It's hard to keep the unit together for that long without being on active duty. A bunch of us has been here and basically we'd do anything for each other," Pearson said.
That commitment runs vibrant throughout the unit, regardless of the finances the Army has to offer.
"To me it was never about money. I wanted to do it because I loved the experience of it. I guess I'm an old patriot. I'm old school," Martinez said.
Martinez has lived through four uniform changes, signed more than six enlistment contracts and has been through the military processing station four times to stay in the Army.
"It's not about money because I stopped getting bonuses years ago. It's all about coming to battle assembly, and try to see if I can teach someone something. And I get taught every day."