JOHNSTON, Iowa – A school teacher named Lena Mosier once wrote a farewell tribute to the Herrold School House, which still stands, vacant, in Camp Dodge. It began like this:
“Early in September of 1912 a new white frame schoolhouse awaited the influx of the first long line of pupils who would pass through its portals for fifty-four years to come. Those first pupils came by horse and buggy, some driving many miles to attend . . . but in 1917, war had broken out in Europe and threatened world conflagration . . . Farmers were deprived of their homes in order to make way for a new military camp that, at its peak, housed 65,000 men.”
The tribute is kept in a manila folder in the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum’s research library. With it are old photos and newspaper articles that serve as a reminder that the small town of Herrold existed - before its schoolhouse became the last building standing as the town merged, slowly, into the folds of Camp Dodge.
Just as the schoolhouse changed throughout history – at one point it even housed Army officers – it continues to change today, as Iowa Army National Guard Soldiers renovate the structure to modernize the training area.
“We’re going to keep the schoolhouse sign and try our best to keep it historically accurate on the outside,” said Sgt. 1st Class Matthew McKee, project manager at Camp Dodge Training Site. “The inside will be pretty much gutted and be two different rooms, and the basement will be made structurally sound.”
The idea, said McKee, is to allow Soldiers to use the schoolhouse as a tactical operations center. They will be able to set up wireless communications to simulate a temporary operations center during conflict.
The 831st Engineer Company based out of Middletown is helping complete the schoolhouse renovation. The unit has the opportunity to finish projects at Camp Dodge during annual training, which allows Camp Dodge Training Site to source the work locally and provide training for Soldiers.
“For a majority of these guys, it’s their first time pouring concrete,” said Sgt. David Kern, an interior electrician with the 831st EC. Kern supervised as his team made a new sidewalk outside the schoolhouse.
“They did pretty good,” he said. “It was a learning experience and kind of a crawling phase to get ready for bigger projects.”
Spc. Brayton Chesnut, an interior electrician new to the unit, said spending his first annual training doing real projects had been exciting.
“Pouring concrete slab is something new,” said Chesnut, “but being able to set up the structure, which can be difficult, was fun because we figured out the best way by using two-by-fours, and everyone pitched in to help. It’s just awesome.”
In addition to the schoolhouse project, the 831st EC is pouring new sidewalks outside the Joint Force Headquarters building, installing electrical capabilities and a ventilation system for a new gas chamber and building the foundations of an Infantry Squad Battle Course.
Camp Dodge had used an old, empty fuel tank to train Soldiers on chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear safety procedures. It had no windows or ventilation system. The Missouri Army National Guard’s 220th Engineer Construction Company built the new structure during its annual training and handed it off to the 831st EC to continue the work.
“This new chamber is very modernized with a better ventilation system and can hold more people,” said McKee.
After the 831st EC completes the electrical and ventilation work, Camp Dodge Training Site will finish the project by installing doors and windows.
Of all the projects slated for Camp Dodge, the new Infantry Squad Battle Course is perhaps the most ambitious.
The 831st EC is helping to complete the first phase, which includes using front-end loaders to build berms.
“[Infantry squads] will be working from west to east,” said Staff Sgt. Dillon Long, a horizontal construction engineer with the 831st EC. “We’re setting up the berms so they can use them for cover, concealment and bounding. There will be a berm across the road from the trenches to have an unmanned moving Humvee to attack.”
Eventually, squads will be able to engage individual targets with rubber bullets as they navigate the berms. McKee said another long-term goal is to install lanes for realistic mounted warfare training, where Soldiers can drive through in tactical vehicles while engaging targets.
While Camp Dodge no longer houses 65,000 Soldiers as it did during the peak of the World Wars, it has become a hub of sustainment and maneuver training for National Guard, Reserve and Active component units. The logistical efforts on behalf of Camp Dodge Training Site and the hard work of supporting engineering units will help modernize Iowa’s largest military training base.
“I like my job. I get to bring in units from different parts of the country to help maintain and improve our properties,” said McKee. “I’m hoping to branch out even broader as we try to start even bigger projects.”