LAKE CHARLES, La. -- A fact in the military community is that Soldiers at some point in their military career will deploy or leave their homes for weeks to months at a time. These deployments can be in the form of combat deployments, training, annual exercises or emergency operations.
A group of Soldiers from the 249th Engineer Battalion, Fort Bragg, North Carolina was called to deploy in support of emergency operations in Lake Charles, Louisiana, after Hurricane Laura devastated the southwestern part of the state.
The 249th Engineer Battalion is made up primarily of prime power production specialists with a few other support and specialty jobs. Prime power specialists are trained to deploy, install, operate, and maintain the Army's Prime Power Program, power generation and distribution assets in support of theater commanders. During their mission to Lake Charles, the unit’s priority was to place temporary power to critical life sustaining facilities, which included emergency services and wastewater treatment plants.
“The intent is to determine the size and location of a temporary generator to power those facilities until the main power utility is restored,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Kristopher Khastehdel, power systems technician, 249th Engineer Battalion, Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
The unit completed its mission and was ready to re-deploy back to their home stations. While many Soldiers look forward to going home after a stressful deployment, the Soldiers from the 249th Engineer Battalion felt their mission was not over.
During a conference with the mission commander, Col. Karl D. Jansen, the team’s leader Khastehdel heard of a critical shortage the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was facing with quality assurance specialist.
“I saw members of my organization desperately in need of help. I wear the USACE patch, if it were me in their boots’, I’d want my teammates to help me out too,” said Khastehdel. “I thought about the locals who requested a temporary blue roof and the longer their homes went without one, the longer their displacement and road to recovery would take. I asked him if my team were to augment the shortage, would it be of added value, provided the coordination was made on my end to receive the change of mission.”
Soon after that meeting, Jansen gave the team’s leader the green light to augment the USACE mission.
Khastehdel returned that evening to brief his team that they would not be returning home but instead supporting a new mission with USACE.
No longer were the Soldiers going to apply their specialty skills as prime power production specialists, they were now going to augment the USACE’s critical mission as quality assurance specialists in support of the FEMA-funded, Corps of Engineers Operation Blue Roof.
Operation Blue Roof allows homeowners who incurred damage by hurricanes Laura and Delta to apply for a temporary blue durable, reinforced plastic sheet on the roof of their home until a permanent solution can be found. Many of the homeowners are waiting on insurance claims or are on a waiting list for roof repairs that are weeks out due to the high volume and demand after the storms.
One Soldier who expressed the same sentiment as Khastehdel was Staff Sgt. Pho Nguyen, prime power specialist, 249th Engineer Battalion, Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
“This mission has had a positive impact on the people. I’ve seen a grown man cry because they are losing their home, they don’t have a roof over their head to sleep,” said Nguyen. “I’ve seen families sleeping in their backyards in tents and that tears me down. We work from sunup to sundown to help the people. I just keep going and try to do more than the day before in the homes I assess which will put a blue roof on their homes.”
Once a homeowner puts in an application for a blue roof with a signed right of entry form, the USACE quality assurance specialists receive the order to visit the home and conduct an assessment. This involves taking photos of the damage and measuring the square footage of the home and roof.
“Once they finish on site, they head back to the emergency field office and have their calculations checked by the team lead, which then makes their way to the data team for analysis,” said Matthew Landreth, quality assurance supervisor, USACE Nashville District. “Once the data team approves, the work order is sent to a contractor who will perform the work.”
The team of eight has made such a positive impact on the mission that their work was recognized by the most senior USACE commander on the ground.
Jansen said, “Soldiers from the 249th Engineer Battalion are highly respected across the Army for their technical skills and track record of accomplishment. When these Soldiers understood the need to step-up for those most impacted by Hurricane Laura and Delta, they answered the call by integrating with the USACE team, quickly learning a new skill, and aggressively accomplishing hundreds of temporary roofing assessments. Their motivation, can-do attitude, and ingenuity exemplify the hallmarks of the Engineer Regiment.”
The Soldiers of the 249th continue to push forward with their mission and within the next few days are expected to be part of a team of USACE personnel who will reach a milestone of 10,000 homes with installed blue roofs in the Lake Charles area. The willingness of the Soldiers to put the welfare of others before their own shows what the Army’s core value of selfless service stands for.