Five Soldiers from Fort Leonard Wood's 509th Clearance Company equipment platoon received medals Feb. 7 for removing foliage surrounding Fort Leonard Wood's Forney Airfield runway in the summer of 2019.

Col. Eric Towns, U.S. Army Garrison Fort Leonard Wood commander, presented Army Commendation Medals to the platoon sergeant and platoon leader and Army Achievement Medals to the squad leader and two equipment operators during a ceremony at Baker Theater.

"One of the things you don't want with an airfield is wildlife that likes to occupy the same space at the same time as the aircraft," Towns said. "That's not good for the aircraft, and it is certainly not good for the wildlife."

During the three-week construction project, the Soldiers used bulldozers, backhoes, graders and dump trucks to level, grade and clear five miles of roadway and nine acres of ground at the airfield.

"We often have to think outside the box in order to develop our junior leaders with real-world construction experience," said Sgt. 1st Class Guy MacCracken, 509th Clearance Company equipment platoon sergeant. "Working with different entities across the installation and embracing the 'Team of Teams' concept is one great way to accomplish both."

Equipment operators cleared large trees and shrubbery that wildlife could inhabit, decreasing the chances of damage to aircraft.

"Wildlife can cause damage to aircraft, called foreign object damage," Airport Manager Dave Robinson said. "In the past we've had a turkey strike an aircraft that caused $300,000 of damage. Overall, (the project) improved the safety of aviation operations on the airfield."

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, foreign object debris causes an estimated $4 billion in damage to engines and aircraft taken out of service each year. Worst-case scenario, this debris can cause aircraft accidents.

"The project assisted us in the safety of aviation assets," said Allen Moll, aviation operations and safety officer at the airfield. "Since the project's completion, airframes ranging from C-17 Globemasters … to V-22 Ospreys and A-10 Warthogs have benefitted from their work."

In addition to assisting in the prevention of aircraft damages, the equipment platoon received valuable training experience.

"By using the equipment platoon we give the Soldiers an opportunity to train and get certified on their equipment," Robinson said.

For Sgt. Joseph Nixon, 509th Clearance Company squad leader, this project provided him with an opportunity to gain experience overseeing a project, and managing personnel.

"Our project was to improve the drainage of areas that were prone to flooding and remove tall obstacles like trees," Nixon said. "We had to assess the situation to see where we could maneuver our vehicles -- the standing water makes the ground soft and the vehicles can get stuck in the mud. During the project, I had to ensure the equipment operators were safely working inside of their capabilities while also making sure that equipment was moving where it needed to be after finishing up."

In addition to supporting military operations, Forney Airfield doubles as the Waynesville-St. Robert Regional Airport. They offer regular commercial flights between St. Louis and Fort Leonard Wood -- available to everyone. The airport recently completed work on a new parallel taxi-way. According to Robinson, this makes the airfield more safe and efficient.

Future plans include upgrades to lighting and a possible extension to the runway.

The airport is also coordinating with the 509th to plan the removal of a pond this summer. Robinson said the project will further decrease wildlife safety hazards while allowing for vital training opportunities for the unit.

"I gave the equipment platoon leader a challenge early in 2019," said Capt. David Hoy, 509th Clearance Company commander. "I said, 'Go find a project that builds operator proficiency and helps make Fort Leonard Wood a better place.' We've been fortunate enough to be part of a great team of teams here ... and have been able to do just that."