COHOES, NY--A quarter mile of the 19th century Erie Canal here in this old textile city north of Albany is being turned into a town park and walking path thanks to 30 members of the New York Army National Guard's 204th Engineer Battalion.
The Soldiers --assigned to the 1156th Engineer Co. from Kingston, NY and the 152nd Engineer Co. from Buffalo-- are spending half of their two week annual training cutting down trees, trimming weeds, and leveling the ground between locks number 14 and 15 of the 19th century canal bed.
They're staying at a local Hilton Hotel (instead of tents at Fort Drum), working from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., using chain saws, skid steer loaders, an armored "back hoe on steroids" called a High Mobility Engineer Excavator (HMEE), and having a great time , said Staff Sgt. Howard Weed, the project Non-commissioned officer in charge.
"I point them in the direction of the work and they go right at it," said Weed, a 28-year military veteran from Gardner, N.Y.
"It's great training and we are helping out the City of Cohoes," said Spec. Charles Adams from Fishkill, NY, who was operating a chain saw. "It is all about giving back to the community and at the same time having a little fun," he added.
"We like it because, not only is it a helping to advance the city's agenda, it is a sound opportunity for our troops to have good training," said Cohoes Mayor John McDonald.
The Cohoes project is one of four innovative readiness training (IRT) opportunities the 204th Engineers are taking advantage of during their 2012 Annual Training period, said Lt. Col. Jim Freehart, the battalion commander .
One team is working on ranges at the New York National Guard's Camp Smith Training Site in the Hudson Valley, a second team is upgrading drainage at Niagara County's Bond Lake Park on the other side of the state, while still another training mission is taking place in a quarry where the unit is running rock crushing equipment.
Army National Guard and Army Reserve units can conduct community projects when the work involves the unit's combat tasks and there are no objections to the unit doing the job instead of a contractor or municipal workers.
At another quarry near Niagara Falls the National Guard engineers are also getting a chance to train on heavy rollers, big scrapers and graders and other road building equipment . "What we have out there is a big sandbox and we have been invited to bring all our toys into it," Freehart said.
Because engineers are tasked to work on a number of projects at once, both overseas and when responding to emergencies in New York, this kind of dispersed training is realistic and builds leadership skills at the company level, Freehart said.
The battalion spent its first week of Annual Training from June 1 to June 9 at Fort Drum firing on the rain, going through drivers training, and practicing skills like righting a rolled armored vehicle. Then, the battalion's elements convoyed to their work locations across the state to begin the second phase of the AT.
Spec. John Pember, an engineer from Brunswick, NY said he appreciated the opportunity to work in the community.
"It is a ton of real life experience," said Pember, a home-builder and contractor in civilian life. " A lot of us have some type of construction jobs so getting to do this is fantastic and applies the skills we have in everyday life and the training we have in the military."
"This builds a lot of teamwork," Pember added. " We are together every day on these two weeks of AT and we learn a lot about one another."
Spec. Radoslaw Mosiej, a Ryebrook, N.Y. resident, said he always appreciates the chance to put his engineer skills to work in the community.
"A couple of years back we did a renovating project at the Boys and Girls Club (in Binghamton, NY) which was very rewarding," he said. "I went home with my chest puffed out," the Polish immigrant said.
The 204th began working on the Cohoes project during the battalion's 2011 Annual Training. The battalion spent a week doing the initial clearing on the old canal bed-- unused since 1911-- that runs above the Mohawk River.
This year the team will continue clearing out the brush and additional work in 2013 should complete the project, Freehart said.
For Adams the combination of military skills training at Fort Drum, and working in the community is the best possible way to spend Annual Training.
"It's the best of both worlds," he said. " We are not just sitting at a post and doing the same things over and over. We are using our skills."