MIHAIL KOGALNICEANU, Romania - The MK Passenger Transit Center at the Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base in Romania may have been merely a passing-through point for approximately 300 members of the 101st Airborne Division en route to Afghanistan Feb. 3, but it marks a significant achievement for military engineers, including the Wisconsin Army National Guard's 924th Engineer Facilities Detachment.
The temporary air transit facility, built in about five weeks, accommodates U.S. troops heading to or departing from European and Central Asian operating areas by providing essential logistical, transportation, reintegration and morale and welfare services. Staffed by 350 people, the transit center can handle up to 2,000 troops through the end of 2014, or the completion of current missions.
"This is one of several transportation hubs that will ensure our war fighters get into and out of theater quickly, safely and efficiently, ready to execute missions or reintegrate into their families, units and communities as the case may be," said Lt. Col. Wayne Marotto of the 21st Theater Sustainment Command. "We envision this as a temporary facility, but it's vital to the mission."
The 15-member 924th Engineer Facilities Detachment of Chippewa Falls, Wis., performed public works department and quality control duties from mid-January through early February. They supported contract construction, tent logistical support, building renovation and remodeling projects, and roadway improvement. They also spearheaded the electrical distribution and force protection planning process, and developed a single tracking mechanism for base construction projects.
"At the onset of the mission, the 924th leadership realized how contracting-centric many of the ongoing projects at MK Romania were," explained Sgt. 1st Class Zachary Tevis, who works full-time as a contracting officer at the Wisconsin National Guard's U.S. Property and Finance Office at Camp Williams, Wis. "The biggest challenge was being part of the first rotation on the ground and obtaining all of the necessary documents and information needed to evaluate Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR) Services Inc.-performed contracts, and make recommendations."
Capt. Scott Johnson, a facility operations specialist employed at Joint Force Headquarters in Madison, Wis., learned the importance of military contracting on this mission — particularly when the weather took an unexpected turn. Temperatures dropped from the low 40s to bitter cold, and nearly three feet of snow accumulated over five days, complicating an already time-constrained project.
"You never really wrap your head around the contracting side of things until you're right in the middle of it, the levels of bureaucracy in getting roads plowed on a Saturday when the KBR people aren't there, the military contracting officer isn't there, but we're there," Johnson said. "So we're trying to find equipment, get roads cleared when there are 4-5-foot drifts out there, and try to keep things moving."
Capt. Daniel Coburn's skills were put to critical use as the protracted winter storm damaged the power infrastructure at the Romanian air base. Chief of engineering at the Fort McCoy public works department, his expertise ensured that heat and hot water were maintained amid Arctic temperatures and high wind gusts.
Tevis acted as liaison between the 924th EFD, the contracting officer representative and KBR during power outages and a water main break. Second Lt. Jeffrey Koehler, an electrical engineer in civilian life, spend two days getting the base back-up power plan working, and then worked to improve the back-up plan.
"We were very flexible — we had a very diverse background," Johnson said. "We had an amazing HVAC lieutenant there [1st Lt. Scott Delo] who works for Trane and was able to step in and answer lots of heating questions and give positive suggestions. We had good electrical people there that could step up and help keep the base power going."
"They were able to utilize some of their civilian background to have a big impact, which is what the National Guard brings to the situation in general," Johnson continued. "We bring civilian background to the fight that is priceless. A perfect example is our HVAC and electrical guys that came in and did base consumption calculations for electrical loads. There aren't many people wearing the uniform that can do that."
Halfway through the 924th's three-week mission, members of the 902nd Engineer Company — part of the Army's 18th Engineer Brigade — recognized the expertise the Guard members possessed and sought them out for advice. Tevis received a coin from Maj. Gen. John R. O'Connor, commanding general of the 21st Theater Sustainment Command — an informal but valued token of appreciation for good work.
"The biggest reward was watching the projects we developed and designed turn into troop-performed construction projects or KBR task orders," Tevis said. "Also, I really enjoyed working in the extreme [operations tempo] for a very highly visible base transformation."
Johnson took on new projects and work orders involving existing structures — tasks beyond the original scope of the 924th EFD's mission — such as expanding the Morale, Welfare and Recreation facility, expanding and altering the military police station, and assisting the chapel project manager. The 924th also helped with important but not obvious aspects of a transit station, such as establishing bedding plans, developing office space and room-key control plans.
Perhaps most impressive was that the 924th EFD did not begin working as a group until November.
"Of the 15 personnel, 10 hadn't been there before," Johnson said. "That's pretty significant. A lot of the team got a sense of accomplishment and good field experience. Some of [the active component soldiers] were quite upset that we were only there for three weeks."
Sgt. Maj. Michael Pintagro of the 21st Theater Sustainment Command contributed to this report.