Utah Engineers Among First Guard Units

Responding to Border Call

 

Written by Maj. Hank McIntire

Published June 13, 2006

 

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The border fence between the United States and Mexico bakes in the late-afternoon sun a few miles east of San Luis, Ariz.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

The border fence between the United States and Mexico

bakes in the late-afternoon sun a few miles east of San Luis, Ariz.

SAN LUIS, Ariz. — On May 15 President George W. Bush called for National Guard troops to provide support to Customs and Border Protection efforts along our Nation’s southern boundary.  

In his landmark speech Bush outlined a plan to maintain a force of 6,000 National Guard troops for a period of one year to provide support in the form of “operating surveillance systems, analyzing intelligence, installing fences and vehicle barriers, building patrol roads and providing training.”

In response to the president’s initiative, National Guard Bureau officials crafted a plan where the bulk of Guard troops sent to Southwest Border States would serve in two- or three-week increments on Annual Training status with the remainder serving on a longer-term volunteer basis.

Less than three weeks following the president’s call, 55 members of the Utah National Guard arrived at Arizona’s southern border June 3 to spend two weeks extending the border fence, building a patrol road, and installing lighting—all in the vicinity of the San Luis Port of Entry.

Soldiers from the Utah National Guard's 116th, 489th and 1457th Engineers arrive at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma June 3.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

Soldiers from the Utah National Guard's 116th, 489th and 1457th Engineers  arrive at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma June 3.

Soldiers of the 116th Construction Support Equipment Company, Spanish Fork; 1457th Engineer Battalion, Camp Williams; and the 489th Engineer Detachment, Springville; brought their specialties together under Capt. Talon Greeff, Riverton, commander of the task force organized to fulfill this mission.

This group of Soldiers with combat experience ranging from Vietnam to Iraq—and others going on their very first deployment away from home—received attention from every major media outlet in northern Utah before boarding a Wyoming Air National Guard C-130 at Salt Lake Air Base.

Upon arriving at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma they were greeted by local media and a thermometer reading of 114 degrees. Such a reception proved to be an indicator that the heat and the press would be sticking close to Soldiers for the entire mission.

Fresh out of basic training and advanced individual training, Roosevelt resident Pfc. Thomas Carter, 1457th Engineer Battalion, expressed his excitement about the Utah Guard being at the border and what he expects to gain from this mission.

Senior Border Patrol Agent John Fountain briefs Utah National Guard Soldiers on the impact of their presence along the border.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

Senior Border Patrol Agent John Fountain briefs Utah National

 Guard Soldiers on the impact of their presence along the border.

“I’m glad they chose the best. It’s great to be a part of history and help out and serve my country. [Being here] I hope to get a better knowledge of my job in the Army and contribute to the security of my country,” Carter said.

Sgt. Mark Chamberlain, American Fork, of the 116th CSE, is a heavy-equipment operator and veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He is looking to get experience and training from this Border mission.

“Being here is a lot better than being at Camp Williams (a training site in Utah where the Engineers often conduct Annual Training). It’s very important that we’re here. We’re helping the Border Patrol protect our borders,” said Chamberlain

The remainder of their first weekend in Yuma consisted of Soldiers’ getting settled in their accommodations and receiving briefings from unit leaders, the Arizona National Guard and the Border Patrol.

Sgt. Boyd Clark, 116th Engineers, left, speaks with news reporter Lucinda Dillon Kinkead at the road-building site near San Luis, Ariz.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

Heber resident Sgt. Boyd Clark,116th Engineers, speaks with reporter Lucinda Dillon Kinkead at the road-building site near San Luis, Ariz.

When Soldiers went to their worksites that first Monday morning, their goals were to complete 1,000 linear feet of border fence, construct two miles of road and emplace conduit for 15 high-intensity lights to illuminate the border area near the port of entry.

Because of the timing of their arrival on the border so soon after the president’s announcement, media interest was high. Soldiers were met at worksites with a scrum of cameras, satellite trucks, reporters, and endless questions. They paused patiently, however, to talk to reporters and photographers, as they began running heavy equipment to carve out the new patrol road, laying conduit and setting wooden forms in a trench that temporarily marked the border between the U.S. and Mexico.

One unanticipated mission on that first day was to pull a CNN satellite truck out of the sand when it got bogged down in the detour bypassing the road-construction site.

On Tuesday Soldiers began settling into a steady routine: Up at 4 a.m., breakfast at the Air Station dining facility, on the job site by 5:30, taking short breaks for water and an MRE for lunch, working steadily until 2:30 p.m. and then back to the Air Station for dinner.

On the individual worksites, foremen worked closely with their Soldiers and mentored them through the planning and execution of their projects.

Pfc. Matthew Smith, 1457th Engineers, carries a 20-foot length of conduit for high-intensity lighting along the U.S.-Mexico border in San Luis, Ariz.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

Pfc. Matthew Smith, Price, 1457th Engineers, carries conduit for high-intensity lighting along the U.S.-Mexico border in San Luis, Ariz.

Payson resident Sgt. Steve Larsen, 489th Engineer Detachment, oversees the lighting-emplacement site. He is a 21 Romeo (military electrician), who managed electrical systems and maintenance at Camp Doha, Kuwait, when he was deployed overseas in 2004-05.

Larsen is a licensed master electrician in his day job, and he knows firsthand how important civilian-acquired skills are for a mission like this.

“Going to the military school you can’t possibly learn everything you need to know about electricity,” said Larsen. “My 12 years of civilian experience are very helpful when my Soldiers ask me questions. I can answer about 90 percent of their questions about electrical work.”

Sgt. 1st Class, James C. Colledge, West Valley City, a platoon sergeant with the 116th, directs the road-building phase of the operation, which is to achieve 95 percent compaction on the natural base material, lay a three-inch sub-base and then apply the finished product, a six-inch top layer consisting of sand and crushed rock.

Staff Sgt. Andrea Murray, 116th Engineers, observes as an operator smooths some road base on a new patrol road near the border.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

Staff Sgt. Andrea Murray, 116th Engineers, observes as an operator smoothes some road base on a new patrol road near the border.

Colledge’s assistant and also of the 116th, Staff Sgt. Andrea Murray, Spanish Fork, a 21 November (construction supervisor), is helping supervise the work and having the time of her life getting into the cab of a bulldozer herself.

“These Soldiers are doing an outstanding job. We’ve got some of the best operators and engineers in the Utah National Guard here,” she said.

For the fence project, leaders of the 116th tapped Staff Sgt. Doug Mecham, Springville, who builds fences for a living.

Mecham, known for his quick smile and enthusiasm for getting in the dirt, says the environment here is comparable to Iraq where he built roads to support troop and civilian movement. He gushes about his Soldiers’ reputation and dedication.

“The engineers from Utah are precise. We like to set the standard and help everyone understand our methods so that those who follow after can continue what we’ve done,” he said.

Sgt. Tina Frame, left, and Staff Sgt. Doug Mecham, both of the 116th Engineers, ensure the proper distance from the border for fence footings.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

Sgt. Tina Frame, left, and Staff Sgt. Doug Mecham, both of the 116th Engineers, ensure the proper distance from the border for fence footings.

“My Soldiers love to do their job. They all want to learn how to train better so that they can help the next individual down the line to do their mission,” Mecham added.

Because of the oppressively hot environment which encompasses most of the Arizona border area, the Utah Guard dispatched medics to be with the troops at all times to treat construction injuries, monitor Soldiers for signs of heat injuries and ensure that they stay hydrated.

One of those assigned to the force health-protection mission is Spc. Cody Slaugh, Rexburg, Idaho; a 91 Whisky (combat medic) with the Utah Guard’s Medical Command.

“I’ve been very impressed with these guys. Most of them have been to Iraq, and it looks like they know how to keep themselves well hydrated. I’m mostly worried about myself, being from Idaho,” Slaugh joked.

Putting all these pieces together was Capt. Greeff, an Iraq veteran who also served in the Gulf Coast region last year with the 500 Utah Soldiers and Airmen assisting with relief and reconstruction efforts following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The fence-building crew emplaces steel posts to be set in concrete for the new 18-foot metal border fence between the U.S. and Mexico.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

The fence-building crew emplaces steel posts to be set in concrete

for the new 18-foot metal border fence between the U.S. and Mexico.

“Our Soldiers are excited to be here and do this real-world mission. They have risen to the challenge, and we’re getting a lot of good-quality work done here on the border,” said Greeff. “Arizona is getting highly skilled operators who do this for a living at home. They will get good-quality work at a very good price.”

With all the media attention and opportunities to brief visiting governors and generals at the worksites, Greeff gets his share of grief from his NCOs and other colleagues who see or hear him daily in the national news. But he takes it in stride and reminds interviewers that it’s the Soldiers who deserve the focus.

“It’s always exciting when people pay attention to the work that you do,” said Greeff. “These Soldiers get to do something relevant and use their military and civilian skills. It’s fun to command a unit that is excited about their mission and the things they are doing.”

Providing historical perspective and the behind-the-scenes continuity for these Engineer projects is Master Sgt. Jimmie Beard of the Arizona National Guard. Beard has spent the last year and a half making sure that Guard and Reserve Soldiers and Airmen, as well as Marines have had what they needed to build their portions of the border fence and patrol road. Beard is impressed with what he’s seen of Utah Guard members on the border.

Soldiers from the 116th and 1457th Engineers weld seams in the new border fence being constructed by the Utah Guard near San Luis, Ariz.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

Soldiers from the 116th and 1457th Engineers weld seams in the new border fence being constructed by the Utah Guard near San Luis, Ariz.

“These guys came to work. They’ve done an outstanding job,” said Beard.

Ronald Colburn, Chief Border Patrol Agent, Yuma Sector, underscores the importance of having the Guard assist them along the Border.

“This is very exciting. The assistance of the National Guard here will free up our patrol agents to be able to secure America’s border between ports of entry.”

So Utah Soldiers continue their mission under the world’s watchful eye. And despite an environment filled with conflicting opinions about their presence here and some confusion about their official status on the Border, such things are transparent to these Soldiers. They know why they have come to the Sonoran Desert and aren’t afraid to say it.

“The reason I joined the Guard was to do my part for our country. This is a great opportunity. It isn’t just training; it’s an actual chance to do something valid,” said Slaugh.

“This is our border; this is where we should be. Protecting America is what the Guard is all about,” Larsen added.