A Pennsylvania Air National Guardsman with the 171st Air Refueling Wing led the construction of seven homes for tribal members of Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, who are currently experiencing homelessness.
Senior Master Sgt. Mark Nicolia, the operations superintendent with the 171st Civil Engineer Squadron, led the planning effort and the first portion of the Cherokee Veterans Housing Initiative during the spring and summer of 2022. This initiative is a three-year effort and is part of the Department of Defense’s Innovative Readiness Training program, which will construct 21 homes for tribe members experiencing homelessness who are also veterans.
“Before this project kicked off, I did not know that native and indigenous peoples served in the military at a higher rate than most groups, but that they also experience homelessness on an exponentially higher scale,” said Nicolia.
The IRT program matches support requests from community partners with military units that require hands-on training in those types of projects. This allows service members from all branches of the armed forces a way to practice their engineering trade skills. The IRT strives to mimic deployed conditions, which gives military units realistic training while also providing long-lasting benefits for local communities across the country.
“Being able to construct new homes offers our service members a unique opportunity to work on multiple phases of construction while helping others,” said Nicolia.
From October 2021 to March 2022, Nicolia and the project management team coordinated training for more than 300 service members from six different branches of the military, which helped increase their experience and mission readiness while simultaneously serving the people of Cherokee Nation.
“We were responsible for the planning and execution efforts of this project, from receiving and bedding down personnel to making sure that materials were delivered on time so that we could meet the expectations given to us by the housing authority,” said Nicolia. “The housing authority and the tribal leadership have been terrific partners alongside us in the military. Any time we had questions on design or needed materials or pieces of heavy equipment on the fly, they responded so that we never lost a day of training.”
The second year of the project, which just completed on August 27, 2022, accomplished over 25,000 training hours.
The work accomplished by the joint team provided the Housing Authority of the Cherokee Nation with labor and equipment costs equivalent to $1.9 million. By the time the project ends, 21 homes will be constructed at a cost savings close to $6 million.
“Our hope was that we could honor the service and sacrifices that native veterans have made. A simple thing like a roof over someone’s head can save their life,” said Nicolia.