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Feature Stories

NEWS | April 11, 2018

Army Reserve Soldiers improve conditions for service members in the Middle East

By Sgt. Amber Criswell and Warrant Officer Brenda Parks 35th Engineer Brigade

An Army Reserve unit of engineers from Penn Yan, doing what it can to improve living conditions on an Iraq military post where water supplies are often scarce and road building is complicated by soil conditions.

Taking on a project called the Western Expansion, Soldiers with 770th Engineer Company were tasked with surrounding two water towers with defensive obstacles. According to 1st Lt. Alex Petecca of Manhattan, N.Y., a project manager, having access to a reliable water supply means markedly better living conditions for the service members and contractors who work here. So, it’s important to protect that infrastructure.

Just getting started on the project required a new road, one safe enough for driving bulldozers and other heavy equipment up a steep embankment.

The prior route was a one-lane gravel road with a significant drop-off to one side. In two weeks’ time, the Army engineers built a wider two-lane road with a gentler slope and no hazardous drop-offs. The quick road building operation meant safer conditions and that the water tower protection project was finished on schedule.

The top layer of earth in this part of Iraq is a fine “moon dust.” To begin building on it, the team must grade the earth down to a sturdy surface. On that foundation, they can emplace HESCOs – mesh containers, with heavy fabric liners, filled with dirt – to create a perimeter wall. The HESCO barriers have been used for years to protect Soldiers from gunfire and explosions. 

Sgt. Angela Paulson of DuBois, Pa. is a heavy equipment operator and the project site lead. Being the site lead is a large responsibility. Paulson is in charge of the entire job site, determining hours, when the soldiers start and stop work, and who on the team is doing what jobs that day. The site lead looks for ways to work efficiently and safely. 

Paulson, a civilian nursing student, described some challenges at the job site. To begin with, the Soldiers had to remove poles from an existing structure to make way for the new construction.

“We have some challenges with the poles being cemented in the ground. We’re going to get a backhoe loader out here and we’re trying to salvage as much as we can,” Paulson said. “We’re going to salvage a couple gates, which means we need to salvage a couple poles too.”

Often times, the teams will save materials from a demolition site then use those materials either on the same project or on another project in the future. The gate and poles were later used on a different project on base. 

Staff Sgt. Kevin Elder from Farmington, N.Y., is the site’s project manager. The project manager tracks progress of all the platoon’s job sites and coordinates with other units, if needed, to ensure the job is completed. The project manager must determine which projects are a priority and what assets are available to be used. He shares this position with Petecca. Elder is on his second deployment to Iraq. 

“This one is much better than the last [deployment] when we paved the desert. If you know anything about that, it’s 300 degrees, then 150 degrees outside, it’s really hot,” Elder said. “This deployment is really better with many more different types of projects here.” 

Pfc. Micah Hopkins of Allegheny, N.Y., is capable of running any piece of equipment on site to include backhoe, bulldozer, skid steer, roller and grader. The grader is his favorite, he says, because, “It’s the finishing touch that everyone really notices.” 

“The 770th Engineer Company has performed above and beyond what is expected from them. They were among the first assets to touch down and start building force protection for coalition forces,” Petecca said. “They hauled critical supplies such as food, water, ammo, and vehicles, and much more to allow for survival and protection in the middle of the desert.” 

Quarter-mile retrograde yard in project underway

Despite weather delays and other challenges, the 770th Engineer Company has also designed and has nearly completed construction on a quarter-mile long retrograde yard that will be used to prepare military vehicles for shipping.

For many members of the 770th, some on their first deployment, the 650-meter by 180-meter yard is the largest project they have constructed. Sgt. Marc Donahue of Fort Drum, N.Y, serves as a site lead and brings his civilian experience as a heavy equipment operator to the project.

“Not only is this a bigger project than what they have done before, but the Soldiers are also using unfamiliar materials,” Donahue said. “The local soil consistency varies from what the team is used to working with back in the states.”

Due to the heightened fire hazard in Iraq, the earth is often tilled, creating fine cornstarch-like dust. The team then must cut the earth to reach a hard base. Local materials are brought in and layered four to six inches at a time, creating the sub-base layers. Each layer is graded, watered, and rolled in order to compact it forming a stable surface. Up to 16 service members working 12-plus hour days, seven days a week follow this process.

Donahue utilizes his civilian experience to ensure proper safety and training on the job site. This has led to an efficient team, all of whom are trained on the various pieces of heavy construction equipment, such as bulldozers and backhoes. 

Pfc. Christopher Hennington, also from Fort Drum, NY, is a valued member of the team due to his civilian occupation as a heavy equipment mechanic. This is his first deployment and for him the deployed job training will be invaluable to his job back home. Seeing the equipment in use for long hours and on varying terrain will help him to better understand why the machines break down.

Spc. Alex Tranquilino, of Charlotte, N.C., is similarly on his first deployment. “It is different from my civilian job doing HVAC,” said Tranquilino, a heavy equipment operator. 

“This is a bigger project than what we usually work on,” said Sgt. Jeff Labrake, a corrections officer from Watertown, N.Y. Labrake says he has “learned a lot more about engineering.”

The biggest challenge for this project has been the weather. One day of rain can equal as much as three non-working days from muddy conditions. As the team works to keep this project on schedule, they keep a watchful eye on the sky.