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445th CES faces cancelled annual tours amid pandemic; completes more than $300k of base projects in three months

Master Sgt. Bryan Keiffer, 445th Civil Engineer Squadron, cuts plywood to reinforce the walls of a hootch at the base warfighter training center, Aug. 6, 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Amelia Gillies)

Master Sgt. Bryan Keiffer, 445th Civil Engineer Squadron, cuts plywood to reinforce the walls of a hootch at the base warfighter training center, Aug. 6, 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Amelia Gillies)

Reserve Citizen Airmen from the 445th Civil Engineer Squadron reframe the area around new windows they installed on a hootch at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base warfighter training center, August 6, 2020. The hootches are an element of the multi-use WTC, and 13 of the improvised huts were repaired.

Reserve Citizen Airmen from the 445th Civil Engineer Squadron reframe the area around new windows they installed on a hootch at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base warfighter training center, August 6, 2020. The hootches are an element of the multi-use WTC, and 13 of the improvised huts were repaired.

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio --

The 445th Civil Engineer Squadron is no stranger to large-scale facility improvement projects. In a typical year, they send several groups of Reserve Citizen Airmen to worksites across the country to complete Innovative Readiness Training projects which improve communities while offering hands-on training opportunities.

In recent years, the 445th CES constructed a 20,000 square feet multi-use facility on a Boy Scout camp in Maine and renovated a 150-year-old fairground in New York. The squadron counts on these invaluable IRT projects each year for their annual tour training requirements. Then COVID-19 came along.

“Never before have we had all annual tour events of all types canceled at once,” said Chief Master Sgt. Alan Baker, chief enlisted manager with the 445th CES.

In a matter of weeks, multiple IRT projects fell through and more than 60 Airmen were left without annual tour orders. It was crunch time.

“We very quickly realized that our people were going to be sitting here for two weeks twiddling their thumbs if we didn’t come up with projects for them to do,” said Senior Master Sgt. Eric Rine, superintendent of heavy equipment and structures, 445th CES.

With travel restrictions in place and only a few months remaining in the fiscal year, the squadron faced limited options. Fortunately, they found a solution right at homestation.

“We began looking at opportunities to see what could be developed into a project,” Rine said.

In some cases, project plans were already in place, but awaiting outside agencies to complete the job. At the warfighter training center, for example, several hootches—improvised huts used to simulate a village or compound during training exercises—needed to be demolished and others required renovation, but there wasn’t yet a contract in place for a civilian company to come onsite and do the work.

“We looked at the WTC and knew that was a project we could definitely do,” Baker said. “It saved the base about $300,000 and we got great training. It was a good reaction to a bad situation.”

It was not as simple as just showing up and breaking ground, though. Leadership in the 445th CES worked closely with Wright-Patterson Air Force Base’s 788th Civil Engineer Squadron to approve the projects, secure funding sources, purchase materials, and establish completion timelines.

“A typical project approval process takes anywhere from three to six months,” Rine explained.

“Fortunately, we’ve established strong relationships with our civilian counterparts in the 788th and they helped us push the projects through very quickly so that we could provide our Airmen with these training opportunities and meet their annual tour requirement.”

Upon official project approval, work crews were assigned. Teamwork was the name of the game.

“From all the work that goes into organizing projects of these size, down to the physical labor of doing the job, there’s no way you can complete it all yourself,” said Senior Airman Dennis Robbins, heavy equipment operator, 445th CES. He came in on orders for about three months and served as the foreman who provided on-the-ground oversight.

One such connection was Bruce McIver, emergency management specialist with the 788th CES. McIver helped facilitate the partnership by providing onsite support to Robbins and communicating funding and supplies needs back to the 788th.

“Robbins would let me know what they needed to be able to complete these projects, and I would secure the funding and purchase the items,” McIver said. “We had to keep the materials flowing.”

To ensure continuity and maximize efficiency, Airmen were assigned to work crews for two week periods, and each work crew overlapped by one week. This way, there were always Airmen onsite who understood the trajectory of the project and helped familiarize the new crew before rotating out of service, Rine said.

“By working together, we were able to get a lot accomplished in a short amount of time, and these improvements benefit both the 445th and the 88th Air Base Wing, along with Marines and other service members who train here. The WTC will be used for upcoming exercises, for example,” McIver said.

In all, more than 60 Airmen from 445th CES completed their annual tour at Wright-Patterson during the summer of 2020. They erected a 50-feet flagpole outside the 445th Airlift Wing headquarters building, poured concrete for a sidewalk and installed numerous static displays to establish Heritage Park. They demolished a dilapidated building and replaced it with a carport and storage area for 445th Security Forces Squadron assets. They renovated an outdated recreation area used by the 445th Maintenance Squadron, replacing the doors, windows, and roof. At the WTC, they renovated or demolished 13 hootches, and cleared more than 100 tons of debris from the area.

“We didn’t leave anything undone,” Rine noted. “Every project we started, we completed.”

The projects resulted in an estimated savings of nearly $300,000 at the WTC and about $120,000 around the 445th AW area of Wright-Patterson AFB.

“We had talked about coordinating these types of projects before, but for one reason or another, it just never panned out,” McIver added. “But this time, they delivered. They delivered big!”

For the Airmen involved, completing the projects resulted in more than just a fiscal impact.

“In a way, it’s like leaving your mark,” Robbins said. “You cruise by and see what you helped accomplish, and you just know you left it better than it was when you got there.”