By Joe LacdanJuly 12, 2018
HONOLULU -- Sgt. Daniel Jack Roberts had just entered the steel and wood-framed church on southern coast of Babeldaob Island, Republic of Palau, when he noticed the stench.
"We walked in and I could smell it instantly," said the carpentry and masonry specialist from Portland, Maine.
The carpet in the church had grown so soiled with mold that a foul odor had permeated throughout the building's walls. Some of the floor tiles lay broken and needed repair. And local Palauans in the state of Airai continued to attend Christian masses in the 1,500 square-foot structure. For eight days, Roberts and his Palauan apprentice worked tirelessly at the church that sits on the southern coast of Palau's Babeldaob Island. They poured concrete to re-level the floor, replaced the carpet and did other structural work to stabilize the building. They even rebuilt the shoe racks.
"They really put their heart and energy into it," said Col. Danielle Ngo, commander of the 130th Engineer Brigade.
Skilled labor in this remote Pacific Island nation of 20,000, 500 miles east of the Philippines, has long been in short supply. Local communities push for more skilled craftsmen and laborers, but often resort to hiring contractors from other nations, such as India, to complete construction projects.
For nearly half a century, the U.S. military has partnered with the Palauan government to support that need. The Civic Action Team-Palau has cultivated a longstanding relationship in the country by executing local construction projects and hosting an apprenticeship program to build the workforce. As part of a tri-service rotation between the Navy, Army and Air Force, the Army sends Soldiers to the island every 18 months to take part in a six-month mission.
For more than 15 years, the Army's 130th Engineer Brigade has sent civil action teams of Soldiers from their home base at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, across the ocean to Palau. The Army's civic action team can assist and voluntarily take part in projects, as well as teach local residents how to build various infrastructures.
Hosted by the 30th Navy Construction Regiment, the military created the mission to foster good relations between the U.S. military the small island nation 48 years ago.
Travelling to a small island nation and taking part in construction projects is one of the 130th's top priorities among the broad range of missions its Soldiers undertake in the Pacific region. The projects pay dividends for both Palauans and the United States.
For Palauans, having U.S. service members come to the island means that critical construction and infrastructure projects will get done correctly. Additionally, as part of an internship program, young Palauans can work alongside U.S. service members to learn for themselves how to do the work. Palauans who complete the program earn a certification in their trade from the National Construction Center for Education and Research, which they can use toward finding jobs with local construction companies.
For U.S. service members, participating in the joint service program grows their professional skill set and also enhances their ability to lead. And for the U.S. military at large, the program allows for access to the island's waterways. Battalion leaders carefully select Soldiers for the unique mission.
The civic action teams, typically comprised of 12 Soldiers, meet with local leaders to determine what areas of the local infrastructure have the most need. They will then develop their mission plan based on areas such as school repair, or assisting with local healthcare at local health clinics.
A versatile group of Soldiers with a wide palette of skills comprise the team: two vertical engineers, a plumber, electrician, two mechanics, two horizontal engineers, a steelworker, a civilian physician and a welder.
"They're resourceful," said Ngo. "They build their own mission and their own relationships. No one's over their shoulder telling them what to do. And they're a reflection of both the Army and the Navy."
Their projects include creating water catchment systems to filter and clean water for residents and animal shelters, or repairing roofs at the hospital. To qualify for the team, Soldiers must take National Center for Construction, Education and Research training.
Some Soldiers will help local residents exercise and keep good health. One morning, Soldiers did circuit training, lifted weights with local residents and did sprints. The team's physician helped run a small clinic to address the diabetes and obesity that has plagued some residents. Ngo said the Soldiers created a daily workout program for community members to join.
Soldiers assigned here must also prepare to adapt and solve problems beyond the scope of their duties.
Roberts and his apprentice completed seven construction projects during his six months on the island, including building a World War II memorial and renovating another.
"There were obstacles where it was just me and him," Roberts said. "We had no other resources available to us. We faced many, many challenges. It really shows you, you can work with anyone and get anything done if you just are willing to."
A local resident approached Roberts regarding a proper burial for her recently-deceased sister. The resident had purchased a headstone that had been carelessly placed onto a bed of rocks, Roberts said. Roberts began the painstaking process of removing the headstone from the rocks and placing it on a grave.
For the World War II memorials, Roberts and Dylan had to travel by boat to the neighboring island of Peleliu. To repair the memorial named Bloody Nose Ridge, Roberts had to carry building materials and tools three quarters of a mile up an incline to construct a staircase. Roberts created the memorial to pay tribute to U.S. troops who died during the Battle of Peleliu.
The construction of the Radar Hill memorial posed different challenges. They cleared heavy overgrowth and built a deck leading to the new structure from the road. Finally, they developed a small parking area. The pair worked in a team of seven Soldiers, enduring 20-hour workdays with few breaks.
During their time in Palau, Roberts, Dylan, and other Soldiers had to figure out on their own how to solve many of the problems they encountered. At the same time, they had to source their own building materials and overcome cultural and language differences.
"They're not going to have everything told to them or given to them on a silver platter," Ngo said of Soldiers who participate in the program. "They have to figure some things out. It builds resilient leaders, it builds leaders who can adapt and overcome some of the challenges."-