News: Aviation welder is one-of-a-kind
By Master Sgt. Steve Opet
3rd Combat Aviation Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, Public Affairs Office
CAMP STRIKER, Iraq – Sgt Stephen Hammontree exemplifies both the current Army motto, "Army Strong," and its former slogan, "Army of One."
He is an "Army of One" as the only certified aviation welder in the 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade, and "Army Strong" because of the welds – which are stronger than the surrounding metal – he makes on the CAB helicopters to keep them flying.
"Most of our welding is on helicopter exhaust systems, which are the parts most affected by the vibration from flying and the extreme heat," said the 35-year-old native of Dalton, Ga., member of Company B, 603rd Aviation Support Battalion.
His supervisor, Sgt. Mark White, a machinist, said Hammontree makes his job a lot easier.
"He's a great welder, but he also does basic machining which helps me with maintenance turn-around," White said.
Even though he is the only certified aviation welder here, Hammontree has a partner, Spc. JasVincent Lizama, also a member of Company B, from Malojloj, Guam, a metal worker with 18 months of service, who shares the shipping container converted into a welding shop.
Both Soldiers are highly skilled in working with the aluminum, stainless steel, titanium and regular steel found on the brigade's aircraft. Hammontree said he and Lizama do not work on aircraft structure, only parts, especially the exhaust systems of the Apache, Kiowa, Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters that undergo heavy stress from flying in the harsh environment of Iraq.
"We were really busy during the summer months when the hot weather added to the heat of the exhaust systems, making them more prone to crack," Hammontree said.
Each type of helicopter is scheduled for routine overhaul after a specific number of hours flying.
Hammontree routinely works with the ultra-thin metals used on the primary and exhaust nozzles, and their support structure.
"Aluminum is the toughest metal to work with," Hammontree said. "Exhaust systems get extremely dirty, and aluminum has to be really clean before you can weld it to specification."
A high-speed sander is good at removing the dirt, but sometimes it also removes too much of the already thin metal, so elbow grease and wire brushes are used more often, Hammontree said.
Hammontree attended welding school at the Cherry Point Naval Depot in North Carolina, which is one of only two military schools that teach aviation welding. He has taken courses there three times: once for certification and twice for recertification.
These two Soldiers' skills aren't limited to welding; although, "when it comes to welding steel these guys are very, very good," White said.
They also repair special tools, make tow bars and fulfill any other unit need.
The 10-year veteran has been with the 603rd ASB since joining the Army to "spend more time with my family." That sounds ironic coming from a Soldier who is 12 months deep into a 15-month deployment in Iraq with Task Force Marne.
"I made good money working for a carpet mill in the 'Carpet Capitol of the World' back in Georgia, but I was working 60 to 80 hours a week, and I wanted to spend more time with my family, and overall I have," said Hammontree who has three sons, Brett, Brock and Braydon.
"My wife, Joy, doesn't like me being gone, but overall she's happy with the choice we made," he said.