News: 23-year Seabee veteran mentors Seabees, now Afghans
Story by Petty Officer 1st Class Daniel Garas
CAMP KRUTKE, Afghanistan – Builder 1st Class Johnny Wilder carefully observes his students as they train each day. He watches over his pupils and offers guidance where he can. But when one of students approaches to ask a question, Wilder cannot give him the answer he needs. Not because Wilder does not know, but because he cannot understand Pashto. All of Wilder’s student’s are Afghans.
Through an interpreter, Wilder learns the Afghan wants to know if he married and if he has any children. It is an unusually personal question for a class about basic construction, but Wilder laughs it off with a smile.
“That’s how they get to know you,” he says. “I’m trying to teach them what an inch is, and they keep bringing up you and asking about your personal life.”
Wilder explains how Afghanistan is a cultural based society where trust is important to a student-teacher relationship. He admits that the questions were strange and daunting at first, but quickly realized the Afghans have their own methods of learning. Some instructors find that adjusting mentorship styles to students’ learning abilities difficult. For Wilder, it is nothing new.
Wilder enlisted in the Navy in 1990 and has served for over 23 years. After serving with Support Unit 4 in Atlantic City, Illinois, the unit decommissioned in 1994 and Wilder found himself in Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 15. Over the course of his career he has mentored hundreds if not thousands of students.
“Back then you used to call your mentor a sea-daddy,” says Wilder. “You would take them [junior sailors] and walk them through the process and get them up to speed.”
In the past, Seabees came into the Navy to learn a skill or trade in the construction industry. Senior enlisted would pass on to their juniors the knowledge of their trade and shape them into professionals. But after years of the same methods the dynamics began to change. More Seabees were arriving in the fleet with experience and newly developed techniques. Wilder noted that in the past construction work was more physical. With advent of new technology, the new ways require more thought process.
“A lot of Seabees today are so advanced when they get in,” said Wilder. “Now we have people who will come in and take the lead on building projects because of their experience as a civilian. You can take a third class and put him in charge of a project just because of his expertise.”
Wilder added that the Navy has been quick to embrace the influx of experience.
“You have to change and move on. The navy is about being aggressive and modernizing,” said Wilder. “The navy needs to be modern. You can’t keep depending on the past to get the job done in a modern world.”
Wilder also believes that a good teacher is an even better student. He continues to listen and learn from his young Seabees. He attributes his willingness to listen to his success as a mentor.
“With technology things change,” says Wilder. “The younger generation is picking up this technology and teaching it to us.”
Wilder is now using that knowledge and experience to help train Afghans.
Starting with the basics, he slowly increased the level of difficulty. Beginning with basic units of measurements, he moved on to explain different types of materials and what their function was. He then moved into teaching them to read prints. Only then were they ready to learn actual construction techniques. Wilder refers to it as a crawl, walk and then run approach.
Keeping their instruction simple, Wilder says he refrains from teaching them advanced tricks.
“Tricks of the trade are always for the advance,” Wilder says. “Here we concentrate on the basics.”
The Afghans are learning from their mentors. Wilder says since they have started they have learned how to prefabricate and assemble walls. He admits there are challenges, but sees some promise.
“Afghans are curious,” notes Wilder. “They have some people that really want to learn. The ones that really want to learn try very hard.”
NMCB 15 is currently deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and is an expeditionary engineering element of U.S. Naval forces supporting units worldwide through national force readiness, humanitarian assistance, and building and maintaining infrastructure.
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