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N.Y. National Guard engineers training, building in Hawaii

By Staff Sgt. Michael Davis | New York National Guard | Aug. 13, 2019

HALEIWA, Hawaii – While most New York Army National Guard Soldiers spent their 2019 Annual Training at Fort Drum, Fort Indiantown Gap, or Joint Base Dix-McGuire-Lakehurst; 45 Soldiers from the 204th Engineer Battalion did their training in Hawaii.

Twenty-three Soldiers from 1156th Engineer Company were selected to participate in an Innovative Readiness Training (IRT) rotation at Girl Scout Camp Paumalu, Haleiwa, Hawaii from July 28 – Aug. 11.

A second detachment of 22 Soldiers arrived on Aug. 11 and will work on the project until Aug. 24.

The company is based in Kingston and Cortlandt Manor, New York.

“The Hawaii Girl Scout Camp IRT is an outstanding program for New York Army National Guard Engineers that will benefit the local community while fostering an environment for our Soldiers to grow, develop and prepare them for future missions,” said Lt. Col. Wing Yu, commander of the 204th Engineer Battalion.

IRT is a joint service program that began in 1993 and provides real-world training opportunities for the U.S. Military’s Reserves and National Guard service members to prepare them for wartime missions while supporting the needs of America’s underserved communities.

Along with service members from the Air Force, Air National Guard, and the Marine Corps Reserves, New York’s engineers have been working at the camp to help build a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) learning center for the Girl Scouts.

The two-year joint training operation has been managed by the Air Guard since the beginning.

1st Lt. Chris Dry Ja with the 116th Civil Engineering Squad, out of Robins Air Base, Georgia, was the project’s officer-in-charge during the 1156th’s first rotation.

The Georgia Air National Guard members praised the Soldiers, Airmen, and civilians, along with the IRT program itself, for providing an opportunity for cooperation among the different branches who were on ground to help.

“There was immediate immersion,” said Dry Ja. “Army, Air, and civilians worked together from the moment they arrived.”

He explained that this was a unique training environment since the different branches were all working together and only divided by jobs – not uniforms.

This was not a volunteer mission. Service members were selected for this mission by their chain of command because of their standings in the unit and their specific military job training, said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Oliverio Hernandez.

“We were hand-selected for this rotation because they needed our specific skillsets,” explained Hernandez, property book officer with the 204th Engineer Battalion and officer-in-charge for the engineers during this rotation.

The 23-year Army veteran with the National Guard has been through myriad training missions and environments across the U.S., but this was the first of its kind for him.

Hernandez explained that annual training is typically focused on continuing and completing the mandatory training that’s required throughout the year. This includes operating and practicing with assigned equipment, conducting mandatory classes and briefings, etc.

This IRT mission took Soldiers out of their normal home stations and forced them to adapt to a very new, different, and challenging environment, Hernandez said.

“This IRT is actually a large-scale project that we’re building from the bottom up,” Hernandez explained. “This is more than just equipment familiarization; this is practical application in a real-world environment with a real-world impact.”

Another unique benefit of IRT is that it’s geared toward developing junior and future leaders, Hernandez said.

Lower enlisted service members are not only doing the hands-on training that wouldn’t normally occur in a drill weekend or annual training, but they’re given the opportunity to teach and learn from their peers and subordinates, he said.

Most Soldiers on the roster have the rank of private first class or specialist, which is just below sergeant and will soon become non-commissioned officers with management responsibilities. This mission affords the time and opportunity to practice training others and learning the patience it takes to be an effective leader.

“Learning and instructing that happens at the lower levels builds a greater sense of team and unit cohesion, which all adds to the readiness for the Force,” Hernandez said. “They’re getting to manage, teach, and learn during a real mission.”

Two of these future leaders who are an integral part of the mission are Pfcs. Anthony Allen and Jesse Velez. Both are members of the 1156th Engineer Company and each has a civilian trade that enhances their military jobs and this mission.

Allen is a military carpentry and masonry specialist for his unit, who was also assigned as the chainsaw trainer and team leader for the mission because of his civilian experience with that tool.

Allen wasn’t sure what to expect when he arrived on the worksite, but he knew it wouldn’t be anything like what he was used to for training missions back home.

“We’ve had challenges, but our biggest one so far is definitely the weather: the heat and rain,” said Allen, who’s been in the New York Army National Guard for just about two years.

Even though he’s only been with the Guard a short time, he has the mindset and determination of a seasoned veteran.

“It doesn’t matter what we come across, we’re going to work through it,” said Allen to the other Soldiers when talking about how to overcome obstacles during the mission.

It’s that can-do and will-do mindset that elevated him to a leadership position during the IRT mission, and when combined with this opportunity will help prepare him for additional leadership roles.

Velez is a plumber assigned to the same unit as Allen and is on his very first mission with the Guard.

“This is the perfect place to test what the Army just trained me to do in Basic and my AIT (Advanced Individual Training),” said Velez.

Velez recently returned from his initial military training and directly credited his military experience with helping him secure a union job in New York City.

While being grateful for the opportunities the Guard has already afforded him, he’s looking to contribute his skills to the mission and continue learning from the Guard as much as he can.

“This is the true definition of one-fight, one-team,” Velez said. ““We’re building community relationships together – showing them they can count on us!”

While there is a significant training benefit for the Guard, some of the major impacts are felt by the Girl Scouts and the Hawaiian community.

Once the IRT portion is complete, the Girl Scouts will only have a fraction of the building to pay to complete before they can begin to teach girls and boys from across all the islands.

Shari Chang, Girl Scouts of Hawaii CEO, a 4th generation Girl Scout, said she applied for the IRT program knowing they could partner with a skilled labor force that would have the capabilities and expertise to make the project happen.

The estimated completion date is September 2020.

“We are so thankful for the support from the military on this project,” said Chang. “The whole process is now coming to fruition and it has been an amazing opportunity for both of us.”

Innovative Readiness Training (IRT) is a collaborative program that leverages military contributions and community resources to multiply value and cost savings for participants.

Communities typically provide materials and basic services (e.g. facilities), while military units contribute personnel and training resources. IRT missions produce mission-ready forces, civil-military partnerships, and stronger communities.