MIHAIL KOGALNICEANU AIR BASE, Romania – Notwithstanding bitter cold and blizzard-like conditions that sent most of the regional populace scurrying indoors, a company of determined engineers applied finishing touches to an essential personnel transit facility on MK Air Base during the final week of January.
The completion of the temporary facility, designed to support current missions and training, provides U.S. combatant commanders vital throughput, transload, transportation and personnel services support.
The transit center provides essential logistical, transportation, reintegration and morale and welfare services, accommodating the flow of American servicemembers into and out of European and Central Asian operating areas through the end of 2014 or the completion of current missions. The base now serves as a transit center for U.S. Soldiers and Marines deploying to and redeploying from Afghanistan, for instance.
Engineers and supporting personnel from the 21st Theater Sustainment Command spearheaded the effort. Fewer than 100 Soldiers of the 902nd Engineer Company (Vertical), 15th Eng. Battalion, 18th Eng. Brigade accomplished the overwhelming majority of the construction and refurbishment mission.
Key leaders overseeing the development of the facilities described the engineers’ efforts as indispensable to the accomplishment of the regional transportation mission.
“They set the conditions for success,” said Col. Michael C. Snyder, the deputy commanding officer of the 21st TSC and officer-in-charge of the Regional Support Element at MK Air Base. “They established capabilities that didn’t previously exist. We couldn’t have done it without them.”
“You couldn’t accomplish the mission here without the facilities they built,” the Dallas, Ore., added bluntly. “And they did it on a very tight schedule in the face of some atrocious weather. To put it in engineer terms, they breached or bypassed every obstacle they encountered.”
The engineering feat included the construction of four major structures: two wooden buildings and two enormous tents. According to Capt. Shawn M. Cook, Task Force 16 Engineer and the 15th Battalion construction officer, the structure of the wooden customs facility and “pole barn” drew inspiration from the design of Southeast Asia, or “SEA” huts.
“We simply put two huts end-to-end to make a larger structure,” Cook said of the customs building. “Hardstand wooden facilities are right up our alley.” The biggest challenges arose when events overtook design. “You know what they say about the ‘best laid plans?’” the Spartanburg, S.C. native asked rhetorically, noting additional requirements, equipment concerns and the weather all exercised a vote. The weight of scanning equipment at the customs building, for instance, compelled the engineers to reinforce floors.
While SEA hut construction falls comfortably within the scope of their training, other missions pressed the limits of engineer ingenuity. Refurbishment projects often required them to build infrastructure in order to facilitate the building of additional infrastructure. Engineers built furniture, created temporary structures, improved roads and pathways, and redesigned and remodeled existing facilities. They also embraced “be prepared to” missions, emplacing sidewalks and even making road signs. Some projects, including two enormous tents erected for use as a passenger terminal and holding area, required outside expertise. These tents should not be mistaken for the “GP-mediums” laying in unit storage areas. These tents rise to around 25 feet at their peak and required elaborate metal framing as well as wooden decking.
“We had to literally emplace additional poling into a metal framework already in place,” Cook said. Frigid and forceful gales, blizzard conditions and the accumulation of ice and snow not only inflicted intense physical discomfort but disrupted transportation and work schedules, damaged raw materials and rendered equipment inoperable. Gale-force winds even ripped through the side of a tent, creating a temporary breach.
“We’ve been near freezing temperatures the whole time we’ve been here; lately we’ve been dealing with freezing cold and strong winds on a daily basis,” Cook said, adding that extreme temperature fluctuations caused expansion and contraction in raw materials such as wood and sometimes forced work stoppages as well as cumbersome, time-consuming efforts to cover and secure structures, tools and building supplies. Still, innovative engineers found a silver lining even in the blizzard that halted progress during the final weekend of January. “It gave us a little break,” said 1st Lt. Jonathan Kasprisin, the leader of 3rd Platoon, 902nd Engineers and a native of White Bear Lake, Minn. “We were able to play some spades, recharge our batteries and build some resiliency for the final push to finish the work and trim and turn over a reliable product to the customer.”
Cook describes the mission as a vindication of the organization, Army engineering and international collaboration; but most of all, he views it as a triumph of 902nd soldiers. The engineers, he said, tapped a variety of sources for support – line haul from Germany, local purchase and Defense Logistics Agency procurement among them. Partners from U.S. Army Europe Headquarters to Romanian civilian and governmental officials contributed to the effort.
“The importance of the Romanian partnership can’t be overstated,” said Lt. Col. Wayne Marotto,” the lead 21st TSC spokesman. “They were a critical enabling partner. Their invaluable contribution to this important mission really symbolizes the mutual commitment to shared interests with regional partners.”
Strategic and tactical U.S. organizations also played key enabling roles.
“The 21st TSC has been amazing,” Cook said of his higher headquarters. “We couldn’t have done this without their support. They were enormously helpful facilitating purchases, coordination and the delivery of (bill of materials).”
Cook also praised battalion and brigade leaders as well as organizational leaders, planners and surveyors. But he reserved his strongest commendations for the carpenters, electricians, plumbers and construction Soldiers who accomplished the mission on the icy ground.
“No one else could’ve done it,” he said frankly. “The success of this mission shows the skill and character of the Soldiers of this company – it’s an amazing testament.”
The soldiers share their leaders’ enthusiasm for the mission and pride in their achievement.
“From start to finish, this has been a magical mission,” said Staff Sgt. Cale Bixler, a vertical construction engineer with the 902nd and native of Clarence, Iowa. “The soldiers kept a ‘drive-on’ attitude and accomplished the mission in four weeks, regardless of limitations on time and resources.”
“I think the biggest thing about the mission was the soldiers coming together to get the job done,” added 1st Lt. Chris Kletzien, the leader of 1st Platoon, 902nd Engineers and a native of Plymouth, Wis. “I was amazed at how well they came together as a team. They knew the overall purpose and they understood the mission at hand. They never stopped – they kept focused the entire time they were out there.”
Engineers took particular pride in their trademark resourcefulness and ingenuity.
“We made do with what we had, even if it wasn’t much,” said Pvt. Jonathan Statts, another 902nd vertical construction engineer and a native of Conshohocken, Pa. “We were just given the basics, but we used our ingenuity to complete the mission. The leadership gave us an idea, and we blossomed.”
That resourcefulness, thrift and ingenuity dovetailed not only with specific mission requirements but with strategic-level cost-saving initiatives.
“This is a perfect illustration of what we strive to accomplish as good stewards of taxpayer money,” Marotto said. “In a time of fiscal constraints, USAREUR, ‘big Army’ and the Department of Defense, for that matter, constantly look for ways to maximize value. Establishing this transition point at MK for the transfer of passengers from civilian to military aircraft enables the most efficient and effective use of both equipment, like aircraft, and resources. It’s a win for soldiers and a win for taxpayers as well as a win for regional partnership.”
Cook, slated to assume command of the company in spring, said the soldiers he’ll soon lead will enjoy some well-deserved “down time” after they return to their home base in Grafenwoehr, Germany. Afterward, they’ll participate in a variety of base consolidation and training missions in Bavaria and the Rhineland.
First and foremost, however, the soldiers, the company and the battalion cherish their identity as the last remaining expeditionary construction engineer outfit in Europe. Cook said the team views the MK passenger transit facility as a defining mission and looks eagerly forward to the next opportunity to build fresh infrastructure where no American engineer unit has gone before.
“The soldiers are extremely intelligent guys,” Cook said. “They knew what they needed to build and the time they had to build it. They put two and two together and realized it was ‘go’ time. They wanted to do this – they were motivated and ready to come out here and accomplish the mission.”
“If you’re going to war, you’re coming through our buildings,” he added. “For construction engineers, this is why we’re in the Army. This is why this career field exists. This is their job and they love it.”