News: Guardsmen restore footbridge access in Fort Ransom
Story by Senior Master Sgt. David Lipp
FORT RANSOM, N.D. — For the past two years, visitors to this tiny southeastern town have asked about the walking bridge they’ve heard so much about.
“And we tell them, ‘Well, it’s over there, but you can’t go on it because it’s too dangerous.’ Now that will be rectified,” said James Thernes, mayor of Fort Ransom, N.D.
Since 1975, the bridge had been the focal point of the community, he said, as well as an important access for residents on the town’s south end. A tree lodged in an ice jam that slammed against the bridge in 2010 changed all of that. A $10,000 FEMA grant looked like it would help, but it wasn’t enough to replace the bridge, which was twisted and mangled.
Soon after becoming mayor two years ago, Thernes began looking for other options. He started by walking into the Lisbon, N.D., armory since the unit’s members had constructed the original bridge as training and community service more than three decades ago. Soon, he learned about Innovative Readiness Training projects — a program that provides Guardsmen with training while giving nonprofits and governmental agencies much-needed help.
“That’s what the IRT concept is all about: It allows (Guardsmen) to get some incredible, quality training and to do communities some outstanding service. This is a unique process that we get to do here in the National Guard as opposed to our active-duty counterparts; they don’t have the ability to be able to do these types of projects,” said Lt. Col. David Skalicky, Innovative Readiness Training manager for the North Dakota National Guard.
In Fort Ransom, Guardsmen from the 815th Engineer Company (Horizontal) Detachment 2 out of Lisbon started work on the IRT project in May by disassembling the old bridge, erecting metal support beams on each side of the river, and then putting up bracing and decking boards. The main unit of the 815th, out of Edgeley, N.D., took over the mission at the beginning of June for a second two-week stint of annual training. In the first few days on the job, Staff Sgt. Gene Anderson Jr., of Mandan, N.D., said the crew leveled the bridge deck and started work on the handrails and the south-side landing. The new bridge will have a handicap-accessible ramp on the north side and a landing on the south end that’s large enough for a wheelchair to turn around. It’s also three feet higher than the former bridge, further distancing the bottom from any potential flood hazards below.
While a mere 77 people populate Fort Ransom, the nearby state park and annual events — from Sodbuster Days to the Sheyenne Valley Arts and Crafts Association Fall Festival — draw thousands more to the community.
Thernes, who has checked in daily on the project, is thrilled with how it’s progressing.
“The Guard has been excellent to work with,” he said. “They’ve done a dynamite job. I’m happy as a kid in a candy shop, to be honest with you.”
The road to bridge fruition wasn’t a short one. Thernes needed to file an extensive application packet through the North Dakota National Guard that included a wealth of permits clearing the project, from historical preservation to wildlife management to the water board. In the meantime, a Guard committee reviewed his project scope, plans and funding availability, as well as whether the necessary skill sets and training time were available within the North Dakota Guard. They also checked with the contractor’s association to ensure the project did not take away from what a contractor could do locally. Once those boxes were checked, the project plan moved up the chain for approval at the Department of Defense level, a process that can take three to six months.
Once the lengthy procedure was complete, both sides were anxious to move forward.
“Every one of the soldiers will tell you this is the type of training they absolutely love to do,” Skalicky, of Bismarck, said. “It serves the community. It’s actually flood-repair oriented, but for them it’s incredible skill training — and, it’s fun!”
Capt. Collin Kappenman, the 815th Engineer Company commander, sees IRTs as more than training and community service.
“What’s very nice about it is we’re able to see, from a command level — in a small, squad-sized element — how they’re able to work together,” he said. “… It’s really given us a great assessment tool to see how they are … in an unfamiliar environment to be able to accomplish a mission this complex.”
While North Dakota National Guard engineers aren’t strangers to construction, most have never built a structure over a moving body of water. Kappenman and others examined numerous risk assessments and mitigation factors to ensure the safest working environment for the Guardsmen, including a safety line in the water, designated life guard, life preservers on site and harnesses secured to safety ropes, in addition to the hardhats and safety glasses common in construction work.
When the project wraps up next week, both Thernes and the Guardsmen said it’ll be a thing of pride to see.
“This is something the guys are going to be able to bring their families to … they like projects like this,” Anderson said.
Kappenman, of Fargo, agreed.
“This is really showing where their heart comes into play and wanting to do this for the community and do it right and do it safe for future generations,” he said. “... This will end up being a landmark for Fort Ransom.”
North Dakota Guardsmen have completed about 20 IRT projects since 2005, although severe flooding in recent years put a halt to many projects. Work completed includes assisting with constructing roads and parking lots for nonprofits and government agencies, as well as removing a high school track, building a classroom and constructing a dormitory.