CAMP HUMPHREYS, South Korea -- Nearly every U.S. Army unit in Korea spends time at the Multi-purpose Range Complex. While most units spend their time at the range qualifying on weapons, the Vertical Platoon of the 643rd Engineer Support Company spent their two weeks at the range on critical construction and infrastructure projects.
Recently reassigned to Korea as part of Task Force War Horse, 602nd Air Support Battalion, 2nd Combat Aviation Brigade, the "Wolfpack" engineer company has the only vertical engineering platoon on the peninsula, and is already making a vital impact.
During their deployment to the range complex in May, the 37 Soldiers and one KATUSA counterpart built two South East Asia (SEA) Huts -- which are stilt-raised, single-room structures that serve as warming or cooling stations in extreme weather conditions -- replaced two decades-old wooden grenade bunkers with more-durable concrete models, and erected a guard station at the entrance to Warrior Valley as part of a range improvement initiative.
Besides helping range operations update and improve their facilities, the platoon also built inert improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and 20 Czech Hedgehogs, which are spiked obstacles used to deter vehicle entry, to help the 1-5 Infantry Battalion, 25th Infantry Division's breaching and demolitions training.
As a vertical construction platoon, the skills needed to erect these structures are mission essential tasks for the Soldiers specializing as plumbers, electricians, masons and carpenters. These skills include construction of wood-frame structures, installation of electrical utilities for the SEA Huts, construction of concrete structures such as the grenade bunkers, and project management, a skill underlying the entire period of operations.
Platoon Leader 1st Lt. Michael Burkeen and Platoon Sergeant Sgt. 1st Class Mark Lake's ambitious build schedule spread the platoon among four construction sites over the two weeks of operations, with as many as three sites active on any day. The platoon relied on their three sergeant squad leaders to provide effective and independent project management at each site.
"They chose the team leaders to each project based on their experience in similar projects, like cement, or wood-frame construction," said Spc. Daniel Clemen, a carpenter. "Everyone had a hand in each of the sites though … it was nice to have a mission that brought everyone together to do good construction that was going to be meaningful to the Rodriguez Range complex."
This was the largest-scale mission for the platoon since arriving in Korea. The range of projects gave Soldiers a chance to brush up on their skills.
"I really enjoyed building the stairs for each of the SEA Huts. It requires a certain type of math that I haven't done since I graduated from AIT. It was nice to get a refresher," Clemen said. "I really had to sit down and rethink it, and recalculate my equations to overcome different obstacles since each house was a different height, so [each] required a unique set of math."
Burkeen and Lake also challenged their platoon to rise to the battle-ready standards of the Korean theatre. The Soldiers conducted operations in the warrior standard for the first week to train and test their stamina, and build resilience to execute operations in a simulated hostile environment.
"It really does slow operations when Soldiers are weighted down by their full kit," reflects Burkeen on the decision, estimating a two-day difference in construction time between constructing the SEA Hut with and without the heavy protective equipment.
"It really helped our Soldiers with the familiarization to their equipment and … was part of our troop leading procedures to build readiness in regards to the fight tonight standard."
The engineers' operations involved two key collaborations with a fellow U.S. unit and with local Korean partners.
Conducting demolition and clearance operations with the engineer's obstacles added a 'train like we fight' realism to the 1-5 Infantrymen's mission and allowed the vertical engineers the opportunity to cross train on skills more common to their combat engineer brothers.
Constructing the concrete grenade bunkers involved a close collaboration with local Korean suppliers to resource and pour the cement.
Burkeen said that by the time his Engineers finished their projects, they had provided 1,312.5 man hours of labor and used 290 pounds of nails, 1,539 boards of lumber, and 454 sheets of plywood.
"This was a great opportunity for our Soldiers to train on tasks that can be difficult or costly at times to set up," he said. "This is a legacy of our time in Korea and we're proud that we could provide newer, safer training facilities for many years to come."