"New Horizons" Projects Train Troops, Aid Islanders
By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service
BASSETERRE, St. Kitts and Nevis, May 13, 1999 For 375 years, Basseterre, which is French for "lowland," has battled and lost against hurricanes, floods, fires and invasions. In the late 1700s, British colonists turned it into a slave market, and the islands remained under British rule until 1983, when it became a self- ruled commonwealth of Great Britain.
Trouble swept into and over Basseterre again in 1998, when Hurricanes Georges and Mitch destroyed or damaged homes, businesses and crops islandwide. The storms flattened sugar cane fields and more than 40 percent of the island's resort hotels. Unable to recover from the devastation on its own, the St. Kitts government accepted U.S. assistance.
Enter the U.S. Southern Command. The Miami-based command is a principal tool of the U.S. humanitarian response to hurricane- ravaged Central America and the archipelago that includes world- class resorts and rustic former colonies.
The command expanded its annual reserve forces training exercise, New Horizons, to engage in a full year of reconstruction projects here and throughout the Caribbean. It also stepped up medical readiness training exercises, sending in small teams of reserve component physicians, dentists and other specialists to help the citizenry and, at the same time, train those medics under rigorous field conditions.
The first elements of the 823rd Ready Engineer Deployable-Heavy Operations Repair Squadron Engineers, Hurlburt Field, Fla., set up camp on a hillside overlooking Basseterre in mid-February. By March 1, their Wild Stallions "tent city" compound was up and running with 100 Air Force heavy construction engineers who would host the Air Force Reserve 142nd Civil Engineering Squadron from Oregon; Air National Guard 201st Red Horse Flight from Pennsylvania; and the Marine Corps Reserve 4th Civil Affairs Group from the District of Columbia. Elements of the 366th Security Forces Squadron, Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, provided security.
Collectively, they would build a new operations facility for the St. Kitts and Nevis Security Forces and a combination community center/hurricane shelter at Newton Ground, about 14 miles north of Basseterre. Meanwhile, independent duty medical technicians served as the camp "docs." Later, a medical team from Wilford Hall Medical Center, Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, and Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, provided outpatient surgical, optometry and dental care.
"This is the largest [cinder block] construction project we've ever undertaken," said 1st Lt. Lance Clark, squadron operations chief, straddling a metal folding chair in the command tent.
Clark's commander, Lt. Col. Tracey Walker, extolled his leadership and the ingenuity of his NCOs in finding ways to get the jobs done faster than planned, under budget, and above the quality expectations of the islanders. "This was supposed to be a 120-day project," she said, "but we'll be out of here by the first of June."
Every phase of the operation has been a showcase of training, Walker said. During a walk-through of the compound, she pointed out the success of her troops in setting up the camp, complete with 110-volt and 220-volt electrical hookups, running water that never runs out, and showers that operate around the clock. There are even separate men's and women's showers, a rarity in tent cities, Walker said.
The Caribbean locale also ties into the Red Horse training plan, Walker said. "We look for opportunities to train in different AORs [areas of responsibility] every year," she said. The scope of the project also helped her unit decide to send the engineers here, while a majority of other squadron members deployed to Eastern Europe for the Kosovo crisis.
"We have teams scattered over five different countries in Europe doing smaller projects," she said. "The size of these buildings is something we just don't get to experience that often. Normally, we'll deploy somewhere with a much smaller contingent to dig a well or build revetments, for example."
Here, they've erected a pair of two-story buildings with construction reinforcements rated to withstand 130 mph winds. They're finishing up the 1,700-square-foot community center and will turn it over to the St. Kitts government in a few days. The 4,600-square-foot operations center will be finished in a few weeks and ready for occupancy by the end of May.
Staff Sgt. Kenny Edwards decided early on to pool the talents of his troops building the operations center. As construction foreman, he sped up the project by having everyone help lay bricks. A reserve NCO with more masonry experience than anyone else in the camp made sure they did the job right.
"We basically got everyone involved learning the basics of each area under the direction of someone fully trained," Edwards said. "So everyone here learned new skills that will help the squadron perform its mission anywhere."
By grading the terrain differently from what blueprints called for, the engineers avoided having to build retaining walls to prevent soil erosion. They'll use the money saved to surround the building with a cement walkway and to add palm trees and other native landscaping.
Out at Newton Ground, Walker bragged about Staff Sgt. Matthew Bedard's ingenuity in strengthening roof trusses and another younger airman's design to prevent ceiling fans hung from drop ceilings from swaying. She said everyone now is calling the cross-bracings he added to the trusses "Bedard's Bracings."
Bedard said the innovations were easy under Walker's style of leadership.
"She basically has allowed us to try out different methods and find better ways to get the job done," Bedard said. That included giving the whole team a shot at bricklaying and other skills not necessarily their own, what Bedard called "multi- skilling." "It brings forth more of a team effort, and we can complete the project much faster," he said.
Back at Camp Wild Stallions, different color pennants on two- foot poles mark a miniature golf course set up throughout the camp by Staff Sgt. George McBride, power production and tent city maintenance chief. "We've got some good competition going," he said.
With the long hours they're putting in at the construction projects, the engineers here don't have a lot of time to play. But the tent city does boast a gym and computers everyone can use to send and receive e-mail. Cable television has allowed them to stay informed about news and sports back home. In the mess tent, besides three hot meals a day, they can get ice-cold water, fruit drinks, even ice cream, around the clock.
A three-person services team assigned to the squadron travels daily to the construction sites, delivering lunches and operating a "tailgate" concession, selling chips, candy and other small items.
Southern Command policy prohibits alcohol use in the tent city and even during off-duty trips to Basseterre pool halls and restaurants. "Nobody has complained," Walker said, "and we've loosened up the policy a couple of times, at a beach party, for example. But overall, it's a good policy and our airmen all have remained motivated. This has been an excellent deployment."
By June 1, the medical team from Texas will be long-gone, and the engineers and security forces will head back to their respective bases. "We'll have some time off," Clark said, "then get ready for our next deployment, probably to Korea in July."
On St. Kitts, they'll have left behind a legacy of humanitarian assistance to a country in need and a couple of new buildings. As this tiny island braces for the hurricane season ahead, it can likely count on its two newest buildings weathering the storm.