The Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 724th Engineer Battalion made a big impact in two Wisconsin communities in 2015, and as the Soldiers in the unit complete more work, it will leave an even greater lasting legacy in the years to come.
Several units from the Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin-based 724th Engineer Battalion, including the 829th Engineer Company, the 229th Engineer Company and the 949th Engineer Detachment took part in innovative readiness training projects in Mosinee, Wisconsin and Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
The units helped construct the Mosinee Community Athletic Complex, which when completed in 2020, will include eight new baseball and softball fields, soccer and football fields, tennis courts, a basketball court and concession stands. The units simultaneously worked on a shooting range complex for the Eau Claire County Sheriff.
The community and the Guard kicked off the project in June and made a lot of headway over the rest of the summer while setting the stage for future phases of the project in 2016 and beyond. Both projects will leave a lasting impact on the local communities and serve a greater good, but the two projects also provided excellent training opportunities for each unit involved.
The 229th, 829th and 949th split their personnel and their allotted annual training days across the projects over the course of the summer to maximize their efficiency and leverage the unique skillsets that each unit brings to the table.
Capt. Benjamin Krall, the commander of the Prairie Du Chien, Wisconsin-based 229th Engineer Company, said the projects amounted to a win-win for the community and for his unit’s readiness as well. The alternative, he said, would have been to go to Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, reserve a training area, move dirt around with the unit’s equipment and ultimately put it all back. Instead, they used the unit’s 165 Soldiers to do something positive for two Wisconsin communities. Approximately half were assigned to the Mosinee site while the remainder worked in Eau Claire during their respective annual training periods.
“I think it was great training for our company,” Krall said. “I know there was a lot of motivation. The Soldiers were pretty inspired to actually be working on something other than pushing dirt around at Fort McCoy.”
The 229th, a horizontal engineer company, employed its skills removing stumps and debris, grading and leveling the surface for the shooting range. It also began constructing berms and preparing the foundation for the main shooting range structure and building a parking lot. In Mosinee, the 229th focused on raising the grade for the various athletic fields that will eventually occupy the site. That kind of work is tailor made for horizontal engineers who specialize in building roads and preparing surfaces for construction, and it also gave the unit an opportunity to utilize recently fielded bulldozers and scrapers for the first time. The unit received the new equipment earlier this year, and the two projects were the first chances most of the unit had to get licensed on the equipment.
The unit will be back next summer to complete the berms at the range in Eau Claire, finish the parking lot and address some drainage issues at the site and then continue work on the athletic complex in Mosinee.
To Krall, there is nothing better or more motivating than meaningful hands-on experience and managing a project from beginning to end — working with contractors, survey and design teams, managing logistics and working with a customer. The experience will pay dividends for the unit in the future.
“Basically teaching each other and learning from one another, because there’s only so much you can learn at a school,” he said.
Sgt. 1st Class Todd Gilbertson, the readiness noncommissioned officer for the 949th Survey and Design Team, based in Chippewa Falls, had a similar sentiment.
“These guys do this kind of work even if we don’t have a project like this, but it’s not the same,” he said. “We can do all the training for it, but it’s not the same as actually seeing something get built or a whole project site revamped. So you get that little bit of pride of ownership for doing such a job where you can actually see some results.”
The 949th is a smaller, 14-Soldier unit responsible for surveying construction sites and developing the plans and drawings other companies will use to complete the work.
“It helps immensely with retention getting someone on an actual project site,” Gilbertson added. “A lot of times we survey out in the acreage in the back of the armory here, and we’ll survey that, but there’s only so many times you can do that before it gets pretty boring.”
When projects are first conceived, the survey and design team is the first on the ground doing a site assessment, surveying and conducting topographical analysis for the construction teams to employ. One 949th Soldier, Staff Sgt. Nicholas Pitsch, who works full-time as an engineer with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, drew up the plans for the shooting range.
“They can’t do their work without our surveyors,” Gilbertson said. “They can break dirt, but they’ve got no clue if they’re building something up or taking something down without our survey guys planning it out for them.”
The practice of coordinating and communicating across the battalion and between units was a valuable training too, he said. Opportunities to do innovative readiness training projects that have involved the entire 724th Engineer Battalion have been rare in recent years due to the operational tempo and the number of overseas deployments.
Meanwhile the 829th Engineer Company, which is headquartered in Ashland, Wisconsin, with a detachment armory in Spooner, Wisconsin, completed the Eau Claire County Sheriff shooting range building. As a vertical engineer company, the unit specializes in carpentry, masonry, electrical and plumbing work.
The approximately 70 Soldiers of the 829th and the 824th Concrete Team involved with the project planned to spend their 2015 and 2016 annual training completing the building, but their efficient work allowed the unit to complete the entire project this year.
“From a commander’s standpoint, it’s what we do,” said Capt. Daniel Coburn, the 829th’s commander.
“Our MOSs (military occupational specialties) are carpentry, masonry, electricians, and a project like what we built up there in Eau Claire really allowed us to get in there and do our job function. Infantry people need get trigger time and run infantry lanes. We need to get time behind our equipment and our hammers and saws and build stuff.”
Constructing the range building gave the younger Soldiers in the 829th a chance to cross-train in other areas, and the unit touched on almost all of the core competencies of a vertical engineer company including roof construction, interior wall build-outs, window and door installation, plumbing, electrical work, lighting, light switches, heating, ventilation and air conditioning, vents and drains.
More importantly, Coburn and others said, their work ultimately will leave a meaningful impact on communities in Wisconsin. Each community is providing the materials for their respective project, and in the case of the Mosinee Athletic Complex, a variety of donors and contractors are working simultaneously along with the National Guard to complete the project.