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Swamp Fox Engineers build homes for Navajo veterans during training mission to New Mexico

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Jim St.Clair
  • Joint Forces Headquarters, Public Affairs

Forty engineers from the 169th Civil Engineer Squadron (169CES), South Carolina Air National Guard (SCANG), spent their two weeks of annual training building homes for Native American veterans in the Land of Enchantment. The training mission, called Deployment For Training (DFT), consisted of building conventionally framed houses in a warehouse setting and on the Navajo Indian reservation located in and around Gallup, New Mexico. Swamp Fox engineers worked jointly with U.S. Navy “Seabees” and personnel from the Southwest Indian Foundation to provide all phases of house construction including carpentry, framing, electrical, plumbing and site work.

The purpose of this DFT was to train in a real-world setting and enhance individual wartime engineering skills, according to Master Sgt. Justin Feeney, PRIME BEEF Manager for the 169CES. It’s a win-win-win situation for all involved. First, all the skilled labor that the military provides saves the Southwest Indian Foundation funds it would otherwise pay contractors for the labor to build the houses. That savings can be poured back into materials and other projects. Second, the military benefits because they get valuable training under challenging and austere conditions. And lastly and most important, the Navajo family receiving the house benefits most of all.

Operation: Footprint

This particular DFT to Gallup was one of the largest, if not the largest, rotations from a single unit in the history of the Southwest Indian Foundation partnering with the U.S. military, according to Jeremy Boucher, the project director for the foundation. For comparison, typical unit rotations bring far fewer troops, usually in the eight to twelve range. Back in 1998, the Southwest Indian Foundation started this project by joining forces with the U.S. Air Force Academy to construct a couple houses for the Navajo tribe. From there, the project evolved into having regular rotations of mostly reserve component military engineers from the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, U.S. Army and the U.S. Marine Corps in two week intervals from April through September every year.

This summer, in addition to being the 20th anniversary of the partnership between the Southwest Indian Foundation and the military, the 2018 house building season is also special because the 10 houses scheduled to be built will go specifically to Navajo veterans. “To have this kind of partnership I think is fairly unique. We have a non-profit, several different governmental agencies coming together to really make something happen. It’s exciting. When you take a step back and look around you say ‘Wow. This is really unique.’  And it’s incredible what we’re able to do with all the parties,” Boucher said.

The Swamp Fox engineers seek out training opportunities like this DFT to check a lot of boxes. “A lot of the skills we have to be trained on we don’t necessarily have the equipment for or enough time on a regular drill weekend to become efficient at it. So DFTs give us a two week time span in order to utilize tools and equipment we don’t usually use. Overall it builds our skill set,” said 2nd Lt. Benjamin Douglass, Deputy Base Civil Engineer. In addition, “We also have a requirement for a SORTS [Status of Resources and Training System] reportable requirement. Therefore, every 36 months we have to do a large contingency project. These DFTs satisfy that requirement,” Feeney said.

“What we do here…is what we refer to internally as ‘Operation: Footprint’. It’s essentially a partnership we’ve had for years and years with the Navajo Housing Authority, the Southwest Indian Foundation and the Department of Defense. The IRT [Innovative Readiness Training] is a training program for military reservists. When they go out to do their two weeks of training every year, the engineering [troops] will come out here and build homes for us. And what we do with the homes is donate them to Navajo families that are in homeless situations,” Boucher explained.

And while the Swamp Fox engineers probably won’t be building homes during a contingency, all the military occupational specialties being practiced during a DFT will be used in a wartime mission. DFTs also help practice improvisation by being able to adjust to the unexpected. “A lot of times when we do these deployments, we never know what we’re going to face. We don’t know what materials we will have on hand or what tools we’ll have to use. So these DFTs help build problem solving skills,” said Chief Master Sgt. Bruce Thompson, the Chief Enlisted Manager for the 169CES.

A year in the making

Usually the summer before, 169CES will contact National Guard Bureau (NGB) to volunteer for a DFT mission. When they volunteer, they are throwing their hat in the ring, so to speak, without knowing exactly where they’ll be going. Past DFTs have been to locations such as Yellowknife, Canada and Israel.

“The year prior [NGB] will send out a data call and they want to know which units are eligible and which units want to do a DFT. As long as it’s not a deployment year and as long as we’re not due for a SILVER FLAG [exercise], which is training specific for CE, we can put our name in the hat for a DFT. We did that and we’re selected for Gallup this year. That’s how it works,” explained Feeney.

169CES sent almost half their entire squadron to New Mexico for this DFT. And while they didn’t bring firefighters, they did bring HVAC (heating and air conditioning) personnel even though there’s not HVAC work to be done for these particular houses. The Swamp Fox engineer team includes plumbers, carpenters, electricians, heavy equipment operators and engineer assistants. Those without a specific job to do will go into the labor pool, according to Feeney.

“Usually when we go, we try to take as many people as possible for cross training, team building and so on,” Thompson said. In the past, such deployments have been capped at the maximum number that can fit on a military transport flight (MILAIR), which is 50.

When 169CES found out last year that they would be going to Gallup in 2018, the reaction was mixed. “I think the first thing we did was Google Gallup, New Mexico. And one of the results was one of the top 10 things to do in Gallup was the flea market,” Thompson said. Feeney added “Some people were excited. Others, not so much.”

On the other hand, once they get to where they are going, opinions can change fairly quickly. “We’ve been on DFTs where we were like ‘Oh this is going to be bad.’ But then we get there and it’s like ‘This is awesome.’ Yellowknife was like that,” Douglass said.

Getting to Gallup

So how do you pack up 40 engineers and transport them to the other side of the country? Not easily it turns out. It’s a heavy lift with lots of moving parts, according to Feeney who also serves as his unit’s deployment manager. In the past they have utilized MILAIR for deployments like this. But in an effort to save valuable funds, it was actually cheaper to fly everyone via commercial air. The Southwest Indian Foundation provided all the tools on site so the Swamp Fox engineers didn’t have to worry about hauling equipment. The closest commercial airport to Gallup is in Albuquerque. For size comparison purposes, New Mexico is a very large state, almost four times as big geographically versus South Carolina. When everyone arrived at the Albuquerque International Sunport, they arranged to have all the luggage transported in a rental truck and everyone piled in 10 rental cars to make the more than two hour trek west to Gallup. Lodging was at a hotel approximately 10 minutes from the main worksite.

Gallup is located 20 miles from the Arizona border. It’s a desert southwest town with more than 20,000 people and advertises itself as “The most patriotic small town in America” on one of the many signs around town. Gallup is an old Route 66 town known now as a transportation hub for trains and the source of Native American jewelry, pottery and rugs. With its nearly 7,000 foot altitude and less than 10 percent humidity, the atmosphere is definitely different for those used to the Palmetto State’s climate.

Hitting the ground running

Bright and early the first day, all the Swamp Fox engineers reported for duty at the Southwest Indian Foundation’s warehouse on the outskirts of town. They were met by Senior Chief Petty Officer Tripp Woolf, a “Seabee” from the U.S. Navy’s Mobile Construction Battalion Twenty Two from Port Hueneme, California. Woolf serves as the project manager and military liaison with the Southwest Indian Foundation for 2018 evolution.

Woolf, who has seen several units come and go since April, was really impressed with the way the Swamp Foxes jumped right into their work and the can-do attitude everyone had. “These guys are a lot more energetic than the last bunch,” he said.

As part of the inprocessing for the DFT, Boucher spoke to the entire group the first day to give some background, history and valuable context as to why the project exists and how it all got started.

Boucher first noted that the Southwest Indian Foundation has been around since the 1960s. “The Southwest Indian Foundation started off with building bridges and drilling wells. These days we’re building homes as well. We started in 1998 with a partnership with the Air Force Academy. Over the years we’ve expanded and joined up with the Navajo Housing Authority. We also provide all sorts of other assistance. We have a scholarship program, an art contest, tuition assistance, emergency cash assistance, and so on. The housing thing has really grown. The housing program is our biggest project because it’s the biggest need on the reservation. Believe or not, right in the middle of the United States of America there are families without running water, or access to clean water. That don’t have a decent roof over their head. And really no means of getting one. And believe it or not, on the reservation that’s a reality,” he said.

Work days during the DFT started at 7 a.m. with roll call and a daily safety brief focusing on a different aspect of worksite operations. Several junior leaders got to present on topics such as ladder safety, proper safety harness inspection and other PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) best practices.

From there everyone received their daily assignments and which work team they would be a part of. By late afternoon, everyone then reassembled at the warehouse for a debrief and work concluded typically by 5 p.m.

Since this DFT is a training opportunity, chances are someone will end up working on a job outside their particular Air Force Specialty Code. Therefore, it helped tremendously to have Southwest Indian Foundation personnel on hand to provide direction and helpful hints along the way since they have built nearly 250 of these homes over the years. That continuity ensures mistakes and potential problems are minimized. And while their goal is to build 10 houses in the 2018 season, production speed is not as important as learning opportunities, according to Woolf. His philosophy on building, which he emphasized several times is: “If you have a skill, teach it. If you don’t have one, learn it.”

When speaking with the Swamp Fox engineers, Boucher shared his thoughts on how these houses should be constructed. “The idea behind our program has shifted from the beginning. In the beginning we were trying to build as many homes for as little money as possible. Sort of like quantity over quality. But the mindset has shifted because if we’re going to be targeting the lowest income families, I want to make sure we put a house out there that they don’t have to worry about. We try to make it as low maintenance as possible. The building technique that we’re using is all to international residential code standards. When we build that house and put it down and walk away from that thing, it’s just like any other home in America. They are built in a modular style but they’re not modular homes. We try not to take shortcuts. That way our families have a solid, sturdy low maintenance home for years and years to come. The Federal government considers 20 years a useful life span for one of these residential, single family homes. 20 years? C’mon. We want it to last a helluva lot longer than that. We want these to outlive the federal government’s expectations,” Boucher explained.

During the two weeks they were in Gallup for their DFT, the Swamp Fox engineers worked on a number of projects. While the majority of effort went into home construction at the warehouse, there were other opportunities for training as well including the delivery of a house, performing facilities maintenance and working on a ramp for a local school. Having such a large group at once meant lots of projects could be tackled simultaneously and everyone was kept very busy the entire time.

Warehouse work

A good half of the group were assigned to work inside the Southwest Indian Foundation’s warehouse on constructing the houses or getting one ready to ship. At any one time, there were two houses being built inside the warehouse while another was being built outside. The houses are constructed on a rail system to facilitate movement later via a tractor trailer. The goal is to get as much done on a house as possible at the warehouse before it’s shipped. They’re between 75 and 80 percent complete when they are transported to the home site, Boucher explained.

The one, two or three bedroom houses are not pre fabrication or from a kit. Instead they are all built from the ground up from start to finish. The Southwest Indian Foundation uses established plans which have evolved considerably over the years. It’s noteworthy that there is no conventional HVAC in these houses. Instead, a wood burning stove is used in the winter to heat the home. And opening the windows in the mornings and closing them in the afternoon keeps the house pleasantly cool in the summer. The low humidity in New Mexico helps too. The Southwest Indian Foundation gets materials from local vendors. “We have an extensive materials list. We get it in phases and it’s the same thing for a one, two, three bedrooms and we’re always tweaking that list here and there,” Boucher said.

The Southwest Indian Foundation purchases approximately $35,000 worth of materials to build an individual house. After the house is delivered on site and completed, the finished product is a home valued at $120,000. These houses are built to last with top-of-the-line construction materials including Hardiplank siding, Trex composite decking for the wheelchair ramps, laminate floors and so on. Even the smallest of details are planned for such as placing the electrical outlets 18 inches from the floor versus the usual 12 inches ensuring the veteran, who might be using a wheelchair, doesn’t have to stoop down to plug something in. And all the construction is in accordance with International Residential Code specifications, according to Woolf. The average time to build a house from start to finish is a few weeks. It all depends on the skill level of the unit and how many troops are participating. Two months from start to finish is a good target time. The completed houses are approximately 1100 square feet of living space.

One of the Swamp Foxes working in the warehouse was Technical Sgt. Mitch Menges, a banker and stockbroker in his civilian life but an electrician with the SCANG on drill weekends. His enthusiasm and energy were noted more than once by his Seabee counterparts. “Yesterday I was putting up the rafters on these homes. I was actually directing them into place. We had one guy over on one side nailing them and we’ll come back and anchor them down later. Once we get the rafters in place then we can run the electrical wires and stuff and then we’ll get it out to the worksite,” Menges explained.

When asked what he’ll remember about this trip and what he got out of it, Menges said: “This is a great mission. I just really appreciate it when the military is able to interact with the community and do something nice. I mean we’re building houses for veterans and for the Navajo people. And you can never have too much goodwill ya’ know. And so when we can do these sorts of humanitarian missions, this is just great. This is my favorite. I was in the Army for a while and most of that time we spent our time blowing up stuff. And this, ya’ know, we’re actually helping people and it’s really cool.”

Not your average delivery

If you have to deliver a house, you don’t call UPS or FedEx. You call the experts, such as Nizhoni Homes, a local trucking company. In order to transport one of the mostly finished houses from the Southwest Indian Foundation’s warehouse to the home site, it first has to be split into pieces to haul it over the road. A good deal of work goes into wrapping the pieces for shipment and making sure everything on the inside is secure and able to withstand the stresses of transport. Before the house arrives, site preparation is done including leveling the land and pouring the foundation. The house will sit on several vertical slabs of concrete which the trailer will back into and over in order to deposit the house safely and securely. Once both pieces are delivered and placed next to one another, within fractions of an inch, the foundation can be packed in with dirt and the two halves can be permanently attached to each other. If it’s a three bedroom model, an addition will also be attached to the two halves. The whole transportation process can take an entire day depending on how far the house has to be moved to the site. Sites are typically within 60 miles of the warehouse in Gallup but can go out to as far as 100 miles. Swamp Fox engineers oversaw the preparation and delivery of a house near Gallup during their first week and everything was executed flawlessly. During the delivery process, and even before the house is finished and then turned over for occupancy, the Native family who witnesses the delivery of their home is extremely thankful. “We see a lot of tears of joy. That’s pretty huge for us. There’s a lot of gratitude and relief,” Boucher said.

Dirt Boys to the rescue

One of the local projects the Southwest Indian Foundation needed help with was the building of an entrance ramp for a school in Gallup. St. Francis School operates a childcare facility and is about to open a nursery for working mothers. The only problem is that when the school was built decades ago, a wheelchair ramp was not included. In order to facilitate the entry of strollers and wheelchairs, the school needed an ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant ramp. That’s where the Swamp Fox engineers stepped in. 169CES heavy equipment operators a/k/a “Dirt Boys” went to work on the project from day one. The Southwest Indian Foundation initially wasn’t sure all the work required to complete the job could be finished before the SCANG would leave. But the Dirt Boys, in their customary swagger, picked up the gauntlet and said ‘Challenge accepted.’ According to Staff Sgt. Bradley Moore, “Our shop’s really got a tight brotherhood. We do pretty much everything together, even on the outside after work. We’re a real tight-knit family.”

As it turned out, the ramp work was a major production. In order to install the new ramp, the concrete in the parking lot next to the entrance first had to be ripped up and removed. That was heavy work with a backhoe to break up the six inch concrete for removal. Then a four-cycle rescue saw with a diamond blade was used to cut the masonry around the entrance. That masonry was also several inches thick with rebar inside. Once that phase was completed, the new foundation could be put in and the new ramp could be installed.

The project the Swamp Fox engineers worked on for St. Francis School was a blessing and an answer to their prayers. “It’s all free for our school which is very good for us because we are not financially able to have a ramp put in. That’s why we haven’t had one [before now],” said Jodi Thomas, director of St. Francis School. The Dirt Boys were happy they were able to assist. “This was a good opportunity for us because we were able to help the school out…this gives us a good opportunity to pitch in and help the community,” Moore said.

“Veterans helping veterans”

About 25 miles to the north of Gallup is the small Navajo community of Tohatchi. That’s where one of the Southwest Indian Foundation houses was delivered in June. Once delivered and set up, a great deal of finishing work remained to be done including shingling the roof, exterior painting, front porch and ramp installation as well as all the inside finishing work. A dedicated team of Swamp Fox engineers was tasked with this project. Tohatchi is remote and the terrain is remarkably similar to what one might find in Iraq or Afghanistan, Woolf noted.

Senior Master Sgt. Thomas McTeer, Heavy Superintendent for 169CES, who supervised the work at Tohatchi, was pleased with this assignment. “Doing projects like this is a lot more meaningful for us. This effects people, Americans. And it’s a lot more personal for me. This [DFT] is a more humanitarian type,” he said.

169CES was able to get the roof shingled in a day. They then started on the inside while the porch and ramp outside were built. This particular house, like all the houses this year, is going to a Navajo veteran specially selected by their tribal government. “We have a contract with the Navajo Nation Veterans Administration to build homes for homeless Navajo veterans. This has been a project that the veterans have been shouting for for years. That’s who these homes are going to be for,” Boucher said.

The house in Tohatchi will be going to Johnathan Becenti. Becenti said he spent five years in the U.S. Marine Corps in the late 1990s and had a couple of deployments to the Persian Gulf aboard the USS Constellation.  

“My MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) was 6317 which was an aviation technician. My responsibility was to maintain the FA-18 Hornet as far as communication, navigation, countermeasures and RADAR systems. Being home here and calling Tohatchi home is great. I do come from the area. My grandparents are from the area and my wife and her grandparents are from the area as well. The home site here we were able to obtain through a relative of mine. I feel really fortunate because after my EAS [End of Active Service], six months after I left the service I broke my neck. I needed to be in a place where there was utilities nearby…That’s why and how we ended up here. Without my aunt and how gracious she was to turn over this plot…we wouldn’t be here today. So we are very, very grateful to her for that,” he explained.

Airman 1st Class Jay Niles summarized how the Swamp Fox engineers felt working on this particular project: “I know this house is being given to a vet. A Navajo vet at that. A Marine Corps vet. And I’m taking pride ‘cause he served his country and I’m currently serving my country…and I’m gonna make sure he has the best house for him and his family and we’re going to put all we have into this house.”

When asked how he felt about receiving this house, a house that the military built especially for him, Becenti said: “Oh it feels good to know that the military is involved and actually helping out, providing a home for my wife and my family. But not only us but other veterans who are out there. It feels good because of their involvement. When the house arrived and they brought the house to the plot and placed it on the foundation, we had a dinner [for the troops] at the chapter house and I did get a chance to meet a few of them. It was a combined effort between me and a few other folks and it turned out great. We were able to feed the personnel here on site and provide them with a good meal to thank them in appreciation for them being here and helping out. In regards to the presence of the military here helping out, they are very, very helpful. I’ve been told they are learning as well and being trained. Veterans helping veterans. That’s something I wish to see continue to happen.”

Facilities maintenance and other work

In addition to the effort building, delivering and finishing the houses, there were plenty of other jobs to keep the Swamp Fox engineers busy during their two week DFT. “We have a bunch of other projects too that we’re able to plug troops into as well,” Boucher explained. One of the miscellaneous jobs 169CES was able to assist with was the replacement of the skylights at the Southwest Indian Foundation’s warehouse. The existing light panels were very old and needed to be updated. Other jobs included repairing and re-welding the railing at the home of a local Navajo veteran in Gallup. Capt. Justin Larson, the flight commander for the DFT said, “We’ve been fortunate that this job has allowed us to get out in the community and [also] work on schools and private homes.”

Just like any wartime mission, it’s best to expect the unexpected and improvise. “The hardest part of this [DFT] is mainly going with the constant changes for us. We always like to make a plan, we always like to know what we’re going into. But we have to be ready to change at a moment’s notice. We’ve got four teams working now and that could change this afternoon. But we’re ready to keep moving and working with whatever they have available,” Larson noted.

All in all, Larson was very happy with the way the DFT unfolded for him and his team. “We’re honored to be here. We’re excited to be able to help the local community. It’s been a great experience. The training has been great but the afterhours and taking in the local community and seeing some of the local area has been a real adventure for us,” he said. Thompson concurred and said “That’s one of the best things about these DFTs. Of course it’s all about the mission. But we also get to experience different locations as well that we might never get the opportunity to otherwise.”

Mission accomplished

During the start of the second week, the Swamp Fox engineers received a visit from some of the senior leadership from McEntire Joint National Guard Base. Among those checking in was Col. Tim Dotson, the 169th Mission Support Group Commander and former 169th CES commander. Dotson was satisfied with the work the SCANG was doing in New Mexico. “I really miss my CE days and those deployments for training, especially the ones when you know you made a difference. I’m glad we are helping out the Native American reservations. What a meaningful use of military power,” Dotson said.

When it was all said and done, Boucher, who spoke on behalf of the entire Southwest Indian Foundation, expressed his thanks in appreciation for all the work the Swamp Fox engineers performed during their two-week mission to Gallup. “It’s a big deal what we’re doing here. We’re giving someone a home...for families who have no other means to get one. What you guys are a part of here is providing a fundamental basic need for families who don’t have one. You can’t live a dignified life if you don’t even have the basic human needs,” Boucher said.