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Feature Stories

NEWS | Jan. 17, 2020

Engineers keep it constructive

By Sgt. 1st Class Gary Witte 207th Regional Support Group

In the engineer office at Erbil Air Base, Iraq, there is a white board displaying an ever-changing list of improvement projects. Almost daily, military and civilian personnel come through the door asking for assistance.

U.S. Army Master Sgt. Steven T. Willoughby, 206th Engineer Battalion base construction management non-commissioned officer in charge, said his Soldiers never lack for work. Tasks can include constructing stairways, helping rewire buildings, levelling and grading fields, digging retention ponds and more.

“You always have to have engineers because something always has to be built and there’s always something that needs to be repaired,” he said.

About a half-dozen National Guard and Army Reserve engineer units from various states are represented on the base. Soldiers from these units are spread across the region to support Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve. Erbil also has an U.S. Air Force engineering unit – the 557th Expeditionary Red Horse Squadron.

U.S. Army 1st Lt. LaTerrence H. Wilson, 859th Engineer Company vertical construction officer in charge, said the variety of work can mean his troops have to develop skills outside their original training. For instance, electricians can find themselves working carpentry and plumbers might learn wiring.

“Since we’ve been here, we’ve been busy,” Wilson stated in regards to his Soldiers’ workload. “They’re really kind of working out of their element, but we’re getting it done.”

“They really have exceeded my expectations,” he added.

In December, his Mississippi National Guard unit was building tent platforms for the 3rd Security Forces Assistance Brigade, which acts as an advisor to Iraqi and Kurdish security forces -- thereby improving and expanding the number of living spaces for service members who stay on the base.

Wilson, who works as a residential contractor in the civilian sector, said the unit rarely gets hands-on work during its normal battle assembly weekends. In contrast, at Erbil, more than a half-dozen engineers circled around each other – cutting boards, measuring them and assembling the tent platforms.

“It’s mission critical for us and the [Security Forces Assistance Brigade] so they have a place to call home,” he remarked.

U.S. Army Reserve Maj. Ron W. Arnold, 207th Regional Support Group, Base Support Operations Integrator project management officer in charge for Erbil, said engineer work helps coalition forces throughout the area, including Kurdish Security Forces, in their ongoing fight against Daesh.

“It’s definitely full spectrum here,” Arnold noted. “You’ve got everyone rolled up into one.”

The flexibility and expertise of troop labor is cost effective and provides quick turnaround for construction projects, he said.

“[Service members] work any kind of shift that’s needed to accomplish the mission,” Arnold said, adding that Reserve and National Guard Soldiers bring unique talents to the job sites. “They bring their civilian skill sets with them … Their skills are refined. They’re dialed in.”

One ongoing assignment is the effort to improve drainage around the airfield and working areas. New retention ponds and drainage ditches created by troops have been crucial in reducing standing water and avoiding minor flooding during the rainy season.

“It’s definitely been improved from what it was,” Arnold said.

Even digging can be delicate work to avoid accidentally tearing up underground wires or pipes.

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Gerald D. Sutton, a 124th Engineer Company squad leader, said their newer personnel with his South Carolina National Guard unit were gaining a lot of experience by operating heavy equipment. As Sutton stood next to an access road, one of his Soldiers worked the spade of a backhoe into the ground, scooping out another drainage ditch.

“We try to get them on something different every day,” he said.

Even though the units have different specialties, they are quick to share skills, equipment and workloads. Sutton pointed out that it was another National Guard unit – the 206th Engineer Battalion Forward Support Company from Owensboro, Kentucky – that surveyed and marked the project before digging began.

“Survey guys are a lot of help to us,” he concluded. “It’s definitely a lot of teamwork. This kind of stuff you need to reach out to everyone on post. We help each other out.”

Nearby, his Soldiers exchanged places in the backhoe, allowing the construction – and the mission – to continue.