Back to the Border for

Utah Guard Engineers

 

By Maj. Hank McIntire

Published June 25, 2007

 

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Looking west toward Naco, Ariz., a patrol road parallels the perfectly straight border between the U.S. and Mexico.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

Looking west toward Naco, Ariz., a patrol road parallels

the perfectly straight border between the U.S. and Mexico.

DOUGLAS, Arizona — It’s been a year since Soldiers of the 116th Horizontal Construction Company were on the U.S.-Mexico border, being the first Guard unit nationwide to support Operation Jump Start.

This initiative, called for by President George W. Bush last year, will continue through June 2008 and has seen thousands of Guard members from all over the Nation provide support to Customs and Border Protection agents in securing our Nation’s southern frontier.

While many of the faces are the same this year, change is the name of the game for the 116th during their three-week Annual Training in the Sonoran Desert. Last time, with the full attention of the world focused on nearly their every move, they were 55 Soldiers from the 116th Construction Support Equipment Company building fences and roads and emplacing lights in the blistering heat near Yuma, Ariz.

This year, with a new unit name, commander, work location and a big focus on training, the 70 Soldiers of the 116th are gaining valuable experience and learning skills which will benefit them in supporting statewide missions or in an overseas combat role as needed.

Soldiers are divided among work sites in Tucson, Naco and Douglas, Ariz., performing vehicle repair and maintenance and improving an existing Border Patrol road.

Sgt. 1st Class Craig Ambrose, of Midvale, a section sergeant with the 116th, is supervising 14 Utah Soldiers at the Tucson maintenance facility of Task Force Diamondback, the entity overseeing the Guard’s Jump Start support in Arizona.

Two members of the 116th Engineers repair a CUCV at the Task Force Diamondback motor pool in Tucson, Ariz.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

Two members of the 116th Engineers repair a CUCV

at the Task Force Diamondback motor pool in Tucson, Ariz.

“In this heat, vehicles are constantly breaking down, so we’re fixing them like crazy,” said Ambrose as his team provides 24-hour repair turnaround for an inventory of about 140 humvees and pickup trucks, or CUCVs (Commercial Utility Cargo Vehicle).

Ambrose’s staff of Construction Equipment Mechanics (62B) and Light-Wheeled Vehicle Mechanics (63B) work quickly and efficiently to serve members of the task force, who exchange up to 15 vehicles a day.

Salem resident Sgt. Clyde McKean, a trained 62B who works as a mechanic in his full-time profession, spends much of his day on the contact truck providing on-site maintenance.

“My civilian job experience helps a ton,” said McKean. “It makes things go faster because you’re used to doing it every day. You don’t have to go to the books to figure out a problem; it’s probably something you’ve seen before.”

Thanks to the 116th Engineers of the Utah National Guard, the Task Force Diamondback fleet stands ready for duty to support Operation Jump Start.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

Thanks to the 116th Engineers of the Utah National Guard, the Task Force Diamondback fleet stands ready for duty to support Operation Jump Start.

But Ambrose isn’t just using his experienced mechanics to turn wrenches; he also has some of his 92A Automated Logistics Specialists getting out of the office and under the hood.

“This cross-training, it’s great,” said Sgt. Parker Taylor, a 92A from Spanish Fork. “I’m learning skills outside my MOS (military occupational specialty). It helps me in the civilian world so I can work on my car at home.”

A combat veteran with only four years in the military, Parker is drawing upon his experience in the Middle East in 2004-05 to make sure this mission is accomplished.

“We have a lot of supply and tool issues here that are similar to what we had in Iraq,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of improvising and doing everything we can to get vehicles on the road in working order.”

Construction-equipment mechanics of the 116th get some cross-training during Annual Training at the Task Force Diamondback motor pool.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

Construction-equipment mechanics of the 116th get some cross-training during Annual Training at the Task Force Diamondback motor pool.

“You make do with what you have,” added McKean. “We were spoiled at home with readily available parts and a clean shop. We did it for a year in Iraq, so doing it here for three weeks is nothing in comparison.”

A hundred miles away to the southeast are two roadbuilding crews, working to close the miles-long gap between existing patrol roads near Douglas and Naco.

Heavy-equipment operators and truck drivers grade the surface and apply the base and finish materials just feet from the border, marked intermittently by rusted barbed wire and vertical steel girders placed at uneven heights to thwart the building of makeshift wooden platforms by would-be crossers trying to drive vehicles into Arizona from Mexico.

Noncommissioned officer in charge of the road project, Sgt. 1st Class James Colledge, of West Jordan, a platoon sergeant with the 116th, expects his crews to finish about three miles of finished road, allowing agents to drive three times as fast than over the previously ungraded surface.

An historical marker identifies the international border between the states of Arizona and Sonora of the United States and Mexico, respectively.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

An historical marker identifies the international border between the states of Arizona and Sonora of the United States and Mexico, respectively.

“The better roads we can build for them, the better off it’s going to be,” said Colledge.

Soldiers serving their second stint on the border see many differences between this year’s mission and a year ago—not the least of which is the absence of reporters, cameras and incessant questions which highlighted their time here in 2006.

“There is a lot less media [this time]. Our people can concentrate on their mission and do what they want to do and that’s move dirt,” said Border veteran Sgt. 1st Class Leslie Dilley, of Orem, Operations Noncommissioned Officer for the 116th, who is not the least bit disappointed that his Soldiers are working in comparative anonymity.

“There’s also a big difference in the type of soil we’re dealing with,” described Dilley. “We’re running two road crews and covering a larger area. We have more people, more construction, and the mission is more training oriented.”

Sgt. Tina Frame, of West Jordan, a heavy-equipment operator with the 116th, also enjoys the training focus on her second tour at the Border.

“Last year we were more focused on production, and this year the focus is on training,” said Frame. “It’s been nice to get the training and spend the time on the grader.”

Another interesting twist for this year is the addition of Staff Sgt. Peter Rogers, an Artificer of Vehicles with the 73rd Engineer Regiment of the British army, based in Nottingham, England.

A 116th road-grader operator  prepares a road surface west of Naco, Ariz., in support of Operation Jump Start.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

A 116th road-grader operator  prepares a road surface

west of Naco, Ariz., in support of Operation Jump Start.

Rogers worked briefly with a Pennsylvania unit last year and jumped at the chance to come back and serve again with U.S. forces.

“It’s nice to get amongst the National Guard and understand how the Guard differs from the Army Reserve,” said Rogers. “I now understand a lot more about how the U.S. system works. And the way I’ve been looked after has just been phenomenal.”

When asked how the two armies compare, Rogers was very complimentary of what he has seen in the U.S. military.

“The way we work [in the British Army], the job comes first and the training comes second,” explained Rogers. “But the way the commander and first sergeant have focused on training is spot-on. We should be doing a lot more of it.”

Rogers also likes the hands-off training approach of the 116th.

Staff Sgt. Peter Rogers, right, of the British Army, visits with Brig. Gen. Bruce Frandsen, left, at the roadbuilding site near Douglas, Ariz., May 15.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

Staff Sgt. Peter Rogers, right, of the British Army, visits with Brig. Gen. Bruce Frandsen, left, at the roadbuilding site near Douglas, Ariz., May 15.

“The British training is very restrictive. The way it works here is, ‘There’s a piece of equipment, here’s the keys, jump in, go and practice,’” observed Rogers. “And when you get it wrong, they put you right. And that’s far better than our way of doing it.”

Besides learning things the American way, Rogers also has shared his expertise with his colonial cousins to include leading the 116th in physical training and drill and ceremony—British style.

“There are a few things that we do differently and I’ve chipped those in as we went,” said Rogers.

From a leader’s perspective, both 1st Sgt. Anthony Shaw, Ephraim, and Capt. Todd Christensen, of Orem, have been impressed with the way their Soldiers have taken ownership of the mission.

A 116th Soldier uses a backhoe to remove concrete slabs from the bed of a new patrol road west of Naco, Ariz.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

A 116th Soldier uses a backhoe to remove concrete

slabs from the bed of a new patrol road west of Naco, Ariz.

The 116th always steps up—whatever the task—and they always exceed the standard,” said Shaw. “The heat is hard, but we have good facilities and morale is high.”

“This is the classic Guard mission,” added Christensen. “Not only are soldiers doing what they do best, but they are supporting a mission that they can see contributes directly to our national security.”

As for the goal to make the most of the training value for newer Soldiers and officers, Christensen is very pleased with what he has seen so far.

“We’re trying to make this a positive experience,” he said. “This is the kind of annual training that—when conducted well—can keep people in the Guard and form memories for these Soldiers that they can look back on and be proud to talk about.”

Capt. Todd Christensen, left, commander of the 116th, briefs Lt. Col. William French on the road-building mission along the Border.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

Capt. Todd Christensen, left, commander of the 116th, briefs Lt. Col. William French on the road-building mission along the Border.

Christensen also credited leaders of the task force for providing the 116th with the tools for success.

“They have been very supportive,” he said. “They’ve been on site with us every day. They’ve bent over backwards to give us the support we need to accomplish our mission.”

And Task Force Diamondback commander Lt. Col. Robert White was equally impressed with the 116th.

“We would not have gotten done what we have done so far if it weren’t for the support of units like the 116th,” said White. “The rotational units bring skill sets that we can’t find in deploying individual Soldiers. They come in and do quality work, and they help us move the ball a little bit farther.”

The Border Patrol has also benefited from the quality and quantity of work the Guard has done. According to White, in the Yuma sector the Guard has helped reduce illegal crossings by 60 percent this year because of the infrastructure the Guard has built., and in the last year the Border Patrol went from 55 percent to 85 percent fully mission capable.

“I’m glad Utah is out here,” said White. “Every unit we’ve had from Utah has been nothing but productive for us.”

116th heavy-equipment operators  prepare a road surface east of Douglas, Ariz., in support of Operation Jump Start.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

116th heavy-equipment operators  prepare a road surface

east of Douglas, Ariz., in support of Operation Jump Start.

Lt. Col. Robert White, commander of Task Force Diamondback, right, briefs Utah Air National Guard visitors on the mission.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

Lt. Col. Robert White, commander of Task Force Diamondback,

right, briefs Utah Air National Guard visitors on the mission.