CAMP BONDSTEEL, Kosovo - On a crisp Balkans spring afternoon, Maintenance Officers Capt. Angela Davis and Chief Warrant Officer 3 Paul Miller heard the closing of tools chest and the slamming of shop doors. The two went out to investigate and witnessed local Kosovo contracted mechanics were leaving earlier than usual.
Davis, the Material Management Center Officer In Charge with the responsibility of Providing centralized and Integrated Support for Kosovo Force (KFOR) Regional Command-East (RC-E), discovered that the contractors were being dispelled from the base to protect the force from the COVID-19 outbreak in the local population.
Davis thought "Missions are still running, how are we going to keep it all going. For more than 20 years, contractors have provided vehicle maintenance support for the KFOR RC-E mission. Solders have been rotating through on nine-month rotations, but most of the vehicles have been there since the start."
The maintenance officers soon realized they had no one to repair the command's vintage mission-critical vehicles since there are no maintenance assets assigned to RC-E.
Miller, the Senior ground Maintenance Officer for RC-E, also shocked at the predicament, said: "I felt like the decision was a knee jerk reaction; it would have really helped to keep some of the contracted mechanics, but I understood we're dealing with a corporation headquartered halfway around the world and no one saw this pandemic coming."
Miller fell into a similar situation in Afghanistan, deployed in 2014-2015. "We had a contractor with no place to work, and I was able to integrate U.S. mechanics with contractors into one facility and got better results. We knew the force was made out of many different MOSs for the peacekeeping mission." So Miller blasted out an email to the subordinate units asking for volunteers with mechanic experience.
The urgency was great since the Soldiers still needed to dispatch from RC-E installations to keep a pulse on the communities and the administrative boundary in their areas of responsibility. They needed to conduct their assigned mission of contributing to the safety and security, ensuring freedom of movement for all Kosovo inhabitants.
Following Miller's email, four Soldiers contacted him to turn wrenches and keep RC-E on the road.
Among the four Soldiers were Sgt. James Lobato, assigned to the operations section of 2-135th General Support Aviation Battalion, Colorado Army National Guard. Three of the Soldiers coming from from the Oregon Army National Guard, Sgt. Joshua Maplethorpe, brigade commander's driver, Sgt. Jason Bergstad, RC-E operations section and Sgt. Nicholas Vestal, the maintenance liaison for the RC-E Maneuver Battalion.
"We all started as volunteers to join the National Guard," said Miller, who was impressed by the Soldier's response. "These Soldiers heard the call for mechanics, and they volunteered again to keep RC-E rolling."
The four started laboring in the contractors' dated shop with non-standard toolsets, replacing 16 of the local contractors. They discovered the vehicles were maintained differently than the U.S. Army standard. The group also faced an additional challenge in tracking the repairs and parts, even obtaining the key to the shop door was a challenge.
RC-E 1st Sgt. Jacin Koop covered down on the production control, taking over the job of two contracted production controllers and one Parts Clerk. He started imputing maintenance status into the Global Combat Support System-Army (GCSS-Army) computer system that tracks Army maintenance and parts.
Klopp quickly organized the data to track the repairs and worked with the team to accurately organize the parts on hand to keep the mechanics working.
"These volunteers were able to repair 27 tactical vehicles across multinational forces in two weeks, effectively bringing us to a sustainable operational readiness rate. These volunteers showed the importance of our diversity and the skill set of maintenance soldiers. If they were not here, we wouldn't have been able to keep going and allowing RC-E to continue the KFOR mission," said Capt. Angela Davis, "I think this speaks to the National Guard's adaptability and flexibility; we never quit and just keep going."
All the Volunteers have something in common, along with Miller and Klopp. Aside from their guard jobs typically one weekend a month, they all work as maintenance technicians for their state's National Guard repairing vehicles during the week. Federal technicians are civilian employees required to maintain a membership in the guard as part of their employment and provide support to both the State and Nation working as civilians.
Newly promoted Sgt. Nicholas Vestal, a prior security guard, said, I joined the national guard to become a mechanic and was thrilled to do something that could end up helping my local community in natural disasters, besides getting a new skill."
Vestal now works during the week as a technician with the job title Field Supervisor for the Technical Manual Verification Team in association with United States Army Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM) out of Salem, Ore.
When Vestal heard what happened, he said, "I'm a 91B Light-Wheel Vehicle Mechanic. I'm willing to do it. I've worked with Chief Miller before; he knows I would rather work in the shop then be on a desk. "
Vestal had to keep doing his maintenance liaison job but now became a parts clerk and mechanic. He enjoyed working in the shop and commented, "The fact that I know the vehicles are fixed to the army standard and know that my fellow Soldiers are safe in the vehicles that I fix gives me a great sense of accomplishment.
I believe private contractors are essential, but all soldiers retain their Military Occupation Skill (MOS) and need to be able to do it. COVID showed us we can't always count on the contractors, but if we maintain our skills, we can overcome anything."