MIHAIL KOGALNICEANU AIR BASE, Romania – State-of-the art facilities such as modern, efficient military bases and personnel transit centers rarely emerge from top hats or magic wands; but their emergence from the most unlikely of raw materials seems nonetheless miraculous to mere mortals.
Army engineers orchestrate the delicate miracle that transforms modest infrastructure, outdated digs or even barren ground into state of the art facilities.
“Transforming the customer’s vision to a functioning facility is a dance from the conceptual to the actual – that’s where the engineer lives,” said Lt. Col. Brooks Schultze, the commander of the 15th Engineer Battalion, part of the 21st Theater Sustainment Command’s 18th Engineer Brigade.
A process initiated by the “customer” – typically a higher military echelon – promptly produces intense planning and diligent preparation. A dizzying array of considerations enters into the engineers’ calculations. Schultze noted that materials, safety, protection, cost, climate and weather as well as host nation and sister service considerations enter into engineer planning. “Every stakeholder weighs into the process,” the Kerrville, Texas, native added.
Intensive survey and planning work follows the development of a concept. According to Warrant Officer Gabriel Jefferson, a construction engineer technician with the 902nd Engineer Company (Vertical), 15th Engineers and Houston native, survey and reconnaissance teams incorporate factors ranging from terrain, climate and weather to cost constraints, host nation and quality of life considerations into their assessments. Survey design or “Tango Teams” translate ideas and customer priorities into coherent blueprints for action, said Warrant Officer Carlene Davis, a fellow construction engineer technician and New York City native. The “delicate dance” with customers, stakeholders, contractors, resource managers and higher military headquarters, meanwhile, continues throughout the process.
The junior officers, noncommissioned officers and soldiers of engineer companies and platoons transform blueprints into physical reality. The 902nd Engineers and a tiny handful of augmentees from other organizations within their battalion embraced the daunting task of creating the personnel transit facility at MK Air Base. Major projects include storage, processing, administrative, customs and soldier-support facilities as well as the refurbishment of older buildings.
According to 1st Lt. Jason Selby, the executive officer of the 902nd and a native of Shepherdsville, Ky., the engineers leverage a variety of key technical specialties to accomplish feats such as the construction of a transit center. Carpenters, electricians, plumbers, masons, equipment operators and repairmen employing “Bobcats,” bucket loaders, cranes, palletized loading systems, light medium tactical vehicles, Humvees and portable tool packages collaborate on the projects. Versatility, flexibility and can-do spirit pervade the engineer ethic. “If an electrician doesn’t have wires to run, he’s a carpenter,” Selby said.
Engineers rarely encounter dull moments; broad missions like the creation of a passenger terminal entail myriad sub-tasks. The 902nd engineers, for instance, routinely develop infrastructure in support of efforts to build infrastructure, constructing furniture and temporary facilities according to mission requirements, said 1st Lt. Jonathan Kasprisin, a platoon leader with the 902nd and a native of White Bear Lake, Minn. They also create base support and quality of life infrastructure, although “that’s the last priority, after all the missions are complete,” Selby said with a wry smile.
The mission, unsurprisingly, includes diligent work but little rest for the weary engineers. The 1st Platoon leader, 1st Lt. Chris Kletzein of Plymouth, Wis., described a grueling regimen commencing with a 6 a.m. formation, a safety brief, a very early breakfast, and a short ride via shuttle to the worksite, and concluding with a return trip to their temporary living quarters and dining facility past 6 p.m. – well after the winter sun sets. “Twelve hours is a minimum,” Selby noted succinctly.
Battalion and company leaders give most of the credit for their success to the miracle workers in hardhats and Army combat uniforms; but strategic positioning also played a role in the emerging success of the MK venture. The Grafenwoehr, Germany-based organization enjoyed decisive advantages over more distant military construction organizations. Relative proximity to Romania mitigated transportation costs and facilitated reconnaissance, planning, supply and communication efforts.
“Being forward-deployed makes it feasible to do the communication, design, reconnaissance and staff review it takes to make a project like this happen,” Schultze said. “This is why we’re in Europe,” added Selby. “Having us here and readily available to move out allowed us to respond so quickly.”
Amazingly enough, the engineers thrive amid daunting demands and even creative chaos.
“It’s a phenomenal opportunity for them,” said Capt. Katie Werback, commander of the 902nd Engineers and a native of San Jose, Calif. “It’s great that it’s serving a larger Army function. There’s a bigger purpose for their training and their skill set.”
“From the time we left ‘Graf’ and came here, morale has gone through the roof,” said company 1st Sgt. Clifton Morehouse. “We all joined the Army to do something, and they’re doing it.
“They’re excited,” added the St. Louis native. “They feel like they’re accomplishing something important. I’m proud of them.”