BROWNING, Mont. - Near the base of the Rocky Mountains, just east of East Glacier Park Village and Glacier National Park sits the small town of Browning. The town sits amongst the rolling green hills that eventually flatten out and mark the western most part of the Great Plains. The area is exceptionally rugged with extremely cold winters, wind gusts that can reach over 80 miles per hour, and once held the record for the greatest 24-hour temperature change of 100 degrees Fahrenheit (from 44° f to -56° f).
Browning is the seat of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, a tribe that can trace their lineage back many years. The Blackfeet are a proud people known for hunting the Bison, and protecting their land. "We became great warriors, because we jealously protected our land. You protect your hunting ground, because that's how you survive. We were what sociologist called 'hunter, gatherers'" explains Harry Barnes, chairman of the Blackfeet Tribal Counsel.
Currently, there are projects in the town that need taken care of, like the expansion of a housing development that provides affordable housing to locals, and a one and half mile stretch of road that is severely rutted and causes difficulties for access of emergency and civil services. "It wouldn't be done. That's the reality of it. We don't have the money. If we used our tribal funds, and hired local people, it would take away from more important projects." said Barnes.
The Town of Browning is in poverty and dire job prospects. "We've had to report an unemployment rating of 75%, in the past." said Barnes. "We are a proud people. But, we have more need than feed. We have a whole lot of things that need to be done, but not a lot of money. The tribal government has a very finite amount of revenue, so programs like healthcare delivery and education take up these resources."
Innovative Readiness Training
Throughout the U.S. are huge needs for infrastructure development, healthcare support, diving, transportation and cyber-security in communities that don't have the necessary means to provide for themselves. The "Bright Idea" - which is an actual award given by Harvard University, and presented to the IRT program - was that the military trains to be able to fill these needs when asked to go abroad and serve their country.
The idea was that if we're going to spend money on this needed training, and spend money supporting the need in these communities why not benefit both sides of need. Thus, started the IRT program, which allows communities to share their need, and allows all branches and components of the military to bid on these projects to fulfill their training needs.
The 317th Engineer Company
The 317th Engineer Company, from Homewood, Ill., is one of the down-trace units of the 416th Theater Engineer Command. The unit is made of experienced engineer soldiers, soldiers with limited experience, and young soldiers that have only recently finished training.
For the last few years the unit hasn't had a chance to practice their skills as a horizontal construction unit. "We were supposed to do something like this two years ago, but we had to help with the brigade's war games. They nixed our construction and we got to be QRF [quick reaction force]." Said Spc. Thomas McSorley, a horizontal construction engineer, with the 317th. "We spent our annual training, last year, moving our equipment from Kankekee [Illinois] to Homewood."
The 317th took advantage of IRT by sending 44 pieces of heavy equipment to Browning, along with three rotations of about 30 soldiers each to receive training and help the community with the projects. The project was managed by Sgt. 1st Class Ljubomir Bratic, with the assistance of the project noncommissioned officer in charge Staff Sgt. Jonathan Kline.
Some soldiers came in slightly apprehensive about operating the massive equipment, but know that the practice they get here will build their confidence. "For me personally, I'm a little scared of it, just because of the power, but once I get used to it, I'm more comfortable, I'm a lot more efficient." Said McSorley. "Once I get used to it, I know where the limits are, again."
Other Soldiers come into the project excited and ready to be at the controls of the massive, iron, dinosaurs. "That one is the HYEX," says Kendra Townsell, a horizontal construction engineer with the 317th, as she points to the large excavator looming 15 to 20 feet in the air, atop a mound of dirt.
"That one is my favorite. When you grab a scoop of dirt and lift, the back comes up off the ground, and it's scary, but then, when it comes slamming back down, it's so awesome." Said Townsell "If you tip over in it, you can just extend your bucket, and stop yourself from falling. But, if you tip that over, you had to try."
The 317th also received support from the Navy Seabees. The Seabees come from Atlanta and belong to Navy Mobile Construction Battalion 14 (NMCB-14) of the 7th Naval Construction Regiment (7NCR). Their job on this project is to provide help in operating the equipment, and to help train the operators on the equipment. This training also provides them with the ability to use equipment that may operate differently from what they are used to.
"This training here is a great chance to get hands-on. Some of the equipment we're touching here, like for example that dump truck, is different than the ones we use. It's not radically different. It's the same concept." Said Equipment Operator 2nd Class Daryl Burnside from NMCB-14. "Let's say, heaven forbid, worse-case scenario, whatever war it is, we get set somewhere, we need to know how to operate the equipment. Lives could be at stake."
For the first 30 days on ground, the unit completed small jobs at the housing expansion project in order to gain the practice needed to operate the equipment. Then the work begins on the Blevins Road construction.
The main benefit of the IRT mission, for the unit, is that all soldiers of every military occupational specialty, in the unit, will receive hundreds of hours of training in their specific job, explains 1st Lt. Michael Gratzke, the planning officer for the project. "Every single soldier and Seabee is getting real life, hands on training to be able to provide a high-quality product for the Blackfeet Nation."