Forty engineers from the 169th Civil Engineer Squadron (CES) of the South Carolina Air National Guard spent their two weeks of annual training this summer building homes for Native American veterans in the Land of Enchantment. The Deployment For Training (DFT) consisted of building conventionally-framed houses in a warehouse setting and on the Navajo Indian reservation located in and around Gallup, New Mexico. Swamp Fox engineers worked jointly with Navy Seabees and personnel from the Southwest Indian Foundation to provide all phases of house construction including carpentry, framing, electrical, plumbing and site work.
The purpose of the DFT was to train in a real world setting and enhance individual wartime engineering skills, according to Master Sgt. Justin Feeney, PRIME BEEF Manager for the 169th CES. It’s a win-win-win situation for all involved. First, all the skilled labor that the military provides saves the Southwest Indian Foundation funds it would otherwise pay contractors for the labor to build the houses. That savings can be poured back into materials and other projects. The military also benefits because they get valuable training under challenging and austere conditions.
This particular DFT to Gallup was one of the largest, if not the largest, rotations from a single unit in the 20-year history of the Southwest Indian Foundation partnering with the U.S. military, according to Jeremy Boucher, project director for the foundation. For comparison, typical unit rotations bring far fewer troops, usually in the eight to 12 range. This summer was also special because all the houses scheduled to be built will go specifically to Navajo veterans.
The SCANG seeks out training opportunities like this DFT to check a lot of boxes.
“A lot of the skills we have to be trained on we don’t necessarily have the equipment for or enough time on a regular drill weekend to become efficient at it. So DFTs give us a two week time span in order to utilize tools and equipment we don’t usually use. Overall it builds our skill set,” said 2nd Lt. Benjamin Douglass, Deputy Base Civil Engineer.
And while the Swamp Fox engineers probably won’t be building homes during a contingency, all the military occupational specialties being practiced during a DFT will be used during a wartime mission.
A year in the making
Usually the summer before, the SCANG will contact National Guard Bureau (NGB) to volunteer for a DFT mission. When they volunteer, they are throwing their hat in the ring, so to speak, without knowing exactly where they’ll be going. Past unit DFTs have been to locations such as Yellowknife, Canada and Israel.
The 169th CES sent almost half their entire squadron to New Mexico for this DFT. When they found out last year that they would be going to Gallup in 2018, the reaction was mixed.
“Some people were excited. Others, not so much,” Feeney said.
On the other hand, once they get to where they are going, opinions can change fairly quickly.
“We’ve been on DFTs where we were like, ‘Oh this is going to be bad.’ But then we get there and it’s like, ‘This is awesome.’ Yellowknife was like that,” Douglass said.
Getting to Gallup
So how do you pack up 40 engineers and transport them to the other side of the country? Not easily it turns out. It’s a heavy lift with lots of moving parts, according to Feeney who also serves as his unit’s deployment manager. In the past, they have utilized military transportation for deployments like this, but this time it was actually cheaper to fly everyone via commercial air.
Hitting the ground running
Most of the DFT work was performed at the Southwest Indian Foundation’s warehouse on the outskirts of town. The project manager and military liaison for the 2018 evolution was Senior Chief Petty Officer Tripp Woolf, a Seabee from the Navy’s Mobile Construction Battalion Twenty Two in Port Hueneme, California.
Woolf, who has seen several units come and go since April, was really impressed with the way the Swamp Foxes jumped right into their work and the can-do attitude everyone had. “These guys are a lot more energetic than the last bunch,” he said.
Work days during the TDY started at 7 a.m. with roll call and a daily safety brief focusing on a different aspect of worksite operations. Several junior leaders got to present on topics such as ladder safety, proper safety harness inspection and other PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) best practices. From there everyone received their daily assignments and which work team they would be a part of. By late afternoon, everyone then reassembled at the warehouse for a debrief and work concluded typically by 5 p.m.
Since this DFT is a training opportunity, more often than not airmen ended up working on a job outside their particular occupational specialty. Therefore, it helped tremendously to have Southwest Indian Foundation personnel on hand to provide direction and helpful hints along the way given they have built nearly 250 of these homes over the years. That continuity ensures mistakes and potential problems are minimized. And while their goal was to build 10 houses in the 2018 season, production speed is not as important as learning opportunities, according to Woolf. His philosophy on building, which he emphasized several times is: “If you have a skill, teach it. If you don’t have one, learn it.”
During the two weeks they were in Gallup for their DFT, the Swamp Fox engineers worked on a number of projects. While the majority of effort went into home construction at the warehouse, there were other opportunities for training as well including the delivery of a house, performing facilities maintenance and working on a ramp for a local school. Having such a large group at once meant lots of projects could be tackled simultaneously and everyone was kept very busy the entire time.
Just like any wartime deployment, it’s best to expect the unexpected and improvise, Capt. Justin Larson, the flight commander for the DFT, noted. “The hardest part of this [DFT] is mainly going with the constant changes for us. We always like to make a plan, we always like to know what we’re going into. But we have to be ready to change at a moment’s notice. We’ve got four teams working now and that could change this afternoon. But we’re ready to keep moving and working with whatever they have available,” he said.
A good half of the group were assigned to work inside the Southwest Indian Foundation’s warehouse constructing the houses or getting one ready to ship. At any one time, there were two houses being built inside the warehouse while another was being built outside. The houses are constructed on a rail system to facilitate movement later via a tractor trailer. The goal is to get as much done on a house as possible at the warehouse before it’s shipped. They’re between 75 and 80 percent complete when they are transported to the home site, Boucher explained.
The Southwest Indian Foundation purchases approximately $35,000 worth of materials to build an individual house. After the house is delivered on site and completed, the finished product is a home valued at $120,000. These houses are built to last with top of the line construction materials including Hardiplank siding, Trex composite decking for the wheelchair ramps, laminate floors and so on. And all the construction is in accordance with International Residential Code specifications, according to Woolf. The average time to build a house from start to finish is a few weeks. It all depends on the skill level of the unit and how many troops are participating. Two months from start to finish is a good target time. The completed houses are approximately 1100 square feet of living space.
Dirt Boys to the rescue
One of the local projects the Southwest Indian Foundation needed help with was the building of an entrance ramp for a school in Gallup. St. Francis School operates a childcare facility and is about to open a nursery for working mothers. The only problem is that when the school was built decades ago, a wheelchair ramp was not included. In order to facilitate the entry of strollers and wheelchairs, the school needed an ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant ramp. That’s where the Swamp Fox engineers stepped in. CE’s heavy equipment operators a/k/a “Dirt Boys” went to work on the project from day one. The Southwest Indian Foundation initially wasn’t sure all the work required to complete the job could be finished before the SCANG would leave. But the Dirt Boys, in their customary swagger, picked up the gauntlet and said ‘Challenge accepted.’
For the school, the new ramp was a blessing and an answer to their prayers. “It’s all free for our school which is very good for us because we are not financially able to have a ramp put in. That’s why we haven’t had one [before now],” said Jodi Thomas, director of St. Francis School. The Dirt Boys were happy they were able to assist. “This was a good opportunity for us because we were able to help the school out…this gives us a good opportunity to pitch in and help the community,” Staff Sgt. Bradley Moore said.
Veterans helping veterans
About 25 miles to the north of Gallup is the small Navajo community of Tohatchi. That’s where one of the Southwest Indian Foundation houses was delivered in June. Once delivered and set up, a great deal of finishing work remained to be done including shingling the roof, exterior painting, front porch and ramp installation as well as all the inside work. A dedicated team of Swamp Fox engineers was tasked with this project. Tohatchi is remote and the terrain is remarkably similar to what one might find in Iraq or Afghanistan, Woolf noted.
The house in Tohatchi will be going to Johnathan Becenti. Becenti said he spent five years in the Marine Corps in the late 1990s and had a couple of deployments to the Persian Gulf aboard the USS Constellation. When asked how he felt about receiving this house, a house that the military built especially for him, Becenti said, “Oh it feels good to know that the military is involved and actually helping out, providing a home for my wife and my family. But not only us but other veterans who are out there. It feels good because of their involvement. In regards to the presence of the military here helping out, they are very, very helpful. I’ve been told they are learning as well and being trained. Veterans helping veterans. That’s something I wish to see continue to happen.”
Airman 1st Class Jay Niles summarized how the Swamp Fox engineers felt working on this particular project: “I know this house is being given to a vet. A Navajo vet at that. A Marine Corps vet. And I’m taking pride ‘cause he served his country and I’m currently serving my country…and I’m gonna make sure he has the best house for him and his family and we’re going to put all we have into this house.”
During the start of their second week, the Swamp Fox engineers received a visit from some of the senior leadership of McEntire Joint National Guard Base. Among those checking in was Col. Tim Dotson, the 169th Mission Support Group Commander and former 169th CES commander. Dotson was satisfied with the work the SCANG was doing in New Mexico.
“I really miss my CE days and those deployments for training, especially the ones when you know you made a difference. I’m glad we are helping out the Native American reservations. What a meaningful use of military power,” Dotson said.
When it was all said and done, Boucher, who spoke on behalf of the entire Southwest Indian Foundation, expressed his thanks and appreciation for all the work the Swamp Fox engineers performed during their two week mission to Gallup.
“It’s a big deal what we’re doing here. We’re giving someone a home…for families who have no other means to get one. What you guys are a part of here is providing a fundamental basic need for families who don’t have one. You can’t live a dignified life if you don’t even have the basic human needs,” Boucher said.Read comments