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    312th Engineers keep it in the family

    312th Engineers keep it in the family

    Photo By Timothy Hale | A Soldier with the U.S. Army Reserve 312th Engineer Company, based in Duluth, Minn.,...... read more read more



    Story by Timothy Hale  

    U.S. Army Reserve Command

    CAMP RIPLEY, Minn. – “Filling spots on a roster might work for some units, but it doesn’t for me,” said Capt. Jeremy Lake, commander of the 312th Engineer Company (Horizontal Construction) based in Duluth, Minnesota.

    “I want Soldiers who want to come to the unit and stay in the unit,” he said.

    Lake, and his first sergeant, Kirk Liljestrom, freely admitted there were problems in the unit before they assumed their leadership roles in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

    They said the previous command climate hampered retention and recruiting.

    But Lake and Liljestrom set out to change the course and chart a new path – not only for the Soldiers in the unit but for Family members as well.

    Their efforts have paid off.

    In the last two years, the 312th have totaled 41 re-enlistments – 21 in Fiscal Year 2013 (233.33 percent of mission quota) and 20 in Fiscal Year 2014 (125 percent of mission quota).

    Soldiers and family members in the 312th say that change is due to interactive and innovative training and showing a genuine caring attitude about every member of the unit from the commander down to the last man and woman.

    It starts at the top

    Lake, originally from Colorado Springs, said he enjoys interacting with the Soldiers.

    “We have a very strong unit, a very integrated and close-knit group,” said Lake, who, when he isn’t wearing the uniform, is a human resource specialist military technician with the 367th Engineer Battalion, the 312th’s next higher headquarters.

    “We believe in trying to stay very in-tune with our Soldiers,” Lake said. “We push our team leaders and squad leaders to stay in contact with our Soldiers outside of drill. Which then enables them to be better prepared when they come to the different activities.”

    Lake said his unit cohesion is so strong that Soldiers in his unit actively volunteer for different duties and events.

    This cohesion, Lake said, leads to a sense of ownership in the unit.

    Lake and Liljestrom make a concerted effort to truly get to know their Soldiers. He said, too many times, in other units, leaders are only seen in large formation gatherings. That leadership style doesn’t work for the current command team.

    “You find that group of four Soldiers and ask them, ‘How are things going? Are you having any issues?’ That way you don’t become this higher-level entity,” Lake said.

    First lieutenant Andrew Hoffman, a platoon leader from Hastings, Minnesota, also takes an active role in getting to know his Soldiers.

    “I like to take a part in mentoring my Soldiers,” Hoffman said. “Because that just gets into holding on to those Soldiers, making sure you’re a part of their lives and making sure you’re relevant to them.”

    Hoffman said leaders have to take an active part in getting to know their Soldiers – learning their strengths and weaknesses in order to complete the mission.

    “That’s how it should be. In the end, they are going to follow who they know and who they trust,” Hoffman said.

    Training beyond the norm

    Leaders in the 312th pride themselves in some of their recent interactive and innovative training events that are not in the normal realm of battle assemblies.

    In April 2014, Lake added Reflexive Fire and Advanced Rifle Marksmanship during a weapon qualification weekend.

    “I’m still seeing dividends from that. The Soldiers still talk about it,” Lake said.

    From November 2014 through January 2015, the unit sent three rotations of engineers to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California where they built a Forward Landing Strip.

    “The Soldiers were happy about being selected, despite the short notice,” Lake said.

    During the battle assembly at Camp Ripley, last month, Lake incorporated urban operations training, using M4 rifles modified for paintballs from the Camp Ripley Training and Support Center. Lake said many of his Soldiers had never practiced urban operations nor had they ever used paintball guns.

    Part of their recent training successes is due in part to having full-time support in the operations and training section, Lake said.

    Sgt. 1st Class Timothy Stanton, the full-time operations NCO for the 312th from Post Falls, Idaho, stays in constant contact with the command group to ensure no time is wasted during battle assemblies.

    “It’s extremely important for the success of this company,” Stanton said. “Without the constant communication, the machine breaks. If my commander or my first sergeant and I are not on the same sheet, as far as training objectives go, the mission is just going to flop.”

    Stanton fulfills not only operations and training duties but he is also a platoon sergeant and acting supply NCO.

    “I get yanked in several different directions so it’s important to me that I plan accordingly so that we have successful training. Not just a bunch of sitting around doing nothing,” Stanton said.

    Empowering Soldiers

    Liljestrom, originally from Ironwood, Michigan, said the unit’s success is also due in part by allowing the NCOs to do their job.

    “You have to empower them,” Liljestrom said. He added there was a time when higher-level NCOs micromanaged the lower enlisted ranks but that leadership style is no longer present.

    “I make sure they manage their platoons effectively and independently,” Liljestrom said.

    Hoffman said the command team has a good philosophy of letting the leaders lead. Devising training plans and having back-up plans so Soldiers don’t show up for battle assemblies waiting for something to happen.

    “I push down to my squad leaders to have them conduct the training,” Hoffman said. “We only have two days, sometimes, to conduct training and in this environment, you have to use every minute.”

    Hoffman echoed the command team’s empowerment philosophy.

    “It’s about empowering the squad leaders to empower their team leaders to empower their Soldiers,” Hoffman said. “Because it all goes down and then it all comes back up once those Soldiers gain more experience and rank.”

    Hoffman said this empowerment philosophy allows the Soldiers to take on the training as their own and does involve a little bit of risk.

    “We’re still there to supervise and evaluate. There’s a little bit of risk but it’s a risk worth taking,” Hoffman said.

    Feeling appreciated

    Members of the unit are made to feel appreciated and welcomed and that starts with the people in the unit.

    “The best part is the people,” said Sgt. Joshua Synnott, a unit mechanic from Duluth. “You make a strong friendships. There’s been a lot of leadership change since I got here in ’07. But, I kind of like the way the direction the unit is going. It makes it nice.”

    Synnott, who is training to be an acting platoon sergeant, said being a good leader is all about looking out for the Soldiers and doing the right things. He said it starts with getting to know the Soldiers and that could lead to reenlistments and recruiting new Soldiers.

    “The better you know your people, the more likely they are to stick around,” he said. “We have a solid NCO Corps here in the unit and I like being a part of that.”

    For Bagley, Minnesota, native, Spc. Harley Higgins, the decision to reenlist was an easy decision, thanks in part to the Family Readiness Group.

    A new father to a 5-month-old daughter, Higgins, who has been in the unit six years, said the active FRG was a key factor in his decision to reenlist.

    “With me having a brand new family, it’s huge to me,” Higgins said. “With the unit involving the FRG and the Family, it just creates closer bonds.”

    Families first

    Lake said the 312th’s very active and strong FRG works to ensure everyone benefits.

    Some of their recent accomplishments include hosting cookouts during long battle assemble weekends, supporting the Duluth Air Show, and hosting the first-ever company level military ball with a World War II and Korean War veteran as the guest speaker.

    Lake said they were only expecting about 30 people to attend but they filled the room with approximately 100 Soldiers and spouses.

    “The FRG started with four people but it has grown very, very large,” said Staff Sgt. Angela Cunningham, the FRG unit liaison.

    Cunningham, who spent time growing up near Fort Bragg, N.C. as a child of military parents, now lives in Duluth.

    She said there is coffee and donuts every morning at battle assembly.

    Sometimes, some of the Soldiers will donate anywhere from $20 to $40 to support the FRG.

    “They put in whatever they can give,” Cunningham said. “It speaks volumes about how the troops see the FRG.”

    Jennillee Anderson, the 312th Family Readiness Group leader from Duluth, said the Soldiers know the FRG has a valuable purpose to unit morale, retention, and recruiting.

    “They know we are here for them, their families, and we’re drama-free,” Anderson said. “We’re all here together and we’re all here for one purpose. If a family is having trouble, we help them.”

    She said the FRG adds to the unit’s cohesive nature.

    “If we help each other out, they (Soldiers) are going to want to stay,” she said.

    'Thank you' goes a long way

    Lake, Liljestrom, Hoffman, and others in the unit take the time to say “thank you” to their Soldiers on a regular basis. But not in a way that pays lip service to the jobs their Soldiers do.

    Lake said it’s not always done in a formal formation setting. He said the “thank you” could be for work on a particular project, assisting the leadership team, or for volunteering for a specific project or task.

    Liljestrom even goes as far as thanking them for their military service.

    But the kudos and accolades don’t stop there. Even platoon leaders, like Hoffman, have picked up the trend.

    “The Soldiers are the heart and soul of the unit,” Hoffman said. “If our platoon does a good job, it’s on them. It’s their motivation and their skills that have completed the mission.”



    Date Taken: 04.18.2015
    Date Posted: 04.28.2015 16:37
    Story ID: 161577
    Location: CAMP RIPLEY, MN, US 
    Hometown: BAGLEY, MN, US
    Hometown: DULUTH, MN, US
    Hometown: HASTINGS, MN, US
    Hometown: IRONWOOD, MI, US
    Hometown: POST FALLS, ID, US

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