FAIRBANKS NORTH STAR BOROUGH, Alaska --
What is usually a quiet, peaceful area in the forest by a lake was transformed into a major construction site filled with Airmen using power tools when Airmen from the 354th Civil Engineer Squadron completed a contingency training project by renovating the Birch Lake Military Recreation Area last week.
Contingency training projects are a multi-craft annual readiness requirement for members of civil engineer squadrons that allow them to work together to construct a high quality product. During these projects, troops typically complete minor facility repairs or renovations but this year the project was significantly larger with approximately 135 Airmen from the squadron participating and over $86,000 of construction and repairs completed.
“This project allowed us to accomplish a lot of our readiness and training objectives we are required to do every year and it also provided the squadron a way to physically put money back into areas that haven’t gotten it traditionally,” said 1st Lt. Clayton Pratt, the 354th CES Field Training Exercise project officer. “With something like Birch Lake [Military Recreation Area], even the smallest amount of money can make a big difference.”
The unit also used this project to practice Agile Combat Employment concepts, which CES Airmen are already familiar with. Airmen performed duties outside of their typical day-to-day operations in order to complete the project.
“One of the great things about the civil engineer career field is that ACE is not a new concept for us,” Pratt said. “We’ve got folks from every career field in civil engineering working on things that are outside of their comfort zone so they can have a little bit of working knowledge to use in a contingency environment.”
The renovations included upgrading eight cabins, grading roads, trimming trees, repainting and staining the main building, and installing new fire pits. The last time the area had been renovated was in 2016, so there was plenty of work for the participating troops.
“We have definitely made an impact on the quality of the Birch Lake Military Recreation Area,” said Master Sgt. Kevin Kline, the 354th CES FTE noncommissioned officer in charge of the project. “Our troops have put blood, sweat and maybe a few tears into this place and with their effort families can continue to come and enjoy the beautiful Alaska summers out here.”
The massive undertaking was broken down into smaller projects with a junior officer or senior NCO leading each team. Teams were tailored according to the types of renovations needed to fix up the cabins. To give the troops a sense of competition, the squadron encouraged the teams to complete one small personal renovation in addition to their assigned projects. Most teams built a bench by the cabin they renovated, while others took a different approach such as adding gravel steps to make it easier for people to traverse the campgrounds.
“For this project we really focused on developing all our troops, not just the enlisted and craft career fields,” Pratt said. “We paired junior officers with solid NCOs to help guide them through their individual projects and also to learn how to effectively lead troops.”
Pratt said the project’s biggest challenge was the logistics of bringing a third of the troops from the 354th CES as well as all the materials and equipment required to Birch Lake. He said at first communication between the other units was difficult but as the project went on it was smoothed out and they were able to complete their mission.
The 354th CES was not the only unit to participate in this project. The 354th Force Support Squadron assisted by providing food and drinks to the hard working Airmen, the 354th Logistics Readiness Squadron helped provide gear such as cots and sleeping bags, and the 354th Contracting Squadron assisted with purchasing materials needed for the project.
“We could not have done this project alone; we’ve had help from people from all over the wing in order to make this happen,” Pratt said. “I can’t thank the other units enough for supporting us and helping us make this happen.”
The troops not only spent their work week out at Birch Lake, they also slept there in order to make the training similar to a deployment and satisfy an 18-month requirement for a Prime Base Expeditionary Engineer Force (Prime BEEF) 96-hour continuous event. After the troops completed their work for the day, they were allowed to return to their campsites and spend time with each other, something that has been hard to do since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Kline said that being able to come together as a unit and bond with each other while upgrading an area that many military members and their families use has been extremely beneficial to the morale of the squadron.
With such a successful turnout and results, the leaders of the 354th CES are looking at continuing to upgrade the recreation area little by little each year.
“I think this project is freaking awesome,” said Lt. Col. Nicholas Van Elsacker, the 354th CES commander. “We knew that there was a requirement to get work done at Birch Lake that would take a lot of different crafts and I’m impressed at how everyone has come together, especially coming out of the pandemic, to get all the work done.”