Without airfields, planes don’t fly. Without roads, soldiers don’t arrive on time. Without parking lots, trucks sink into the mud.
That’s why the Washington Army National Guard has the 286th Engineer Company, the military version of a civilian construction company.
About 120 soldiers are assigned to the company, headquartered at the Yakima Training Center outside of Selah. They train regularly to perform both their primary engineering mission and standard soldiering skills, such as accuracy on the firearms range.
On a recent drill weekend at the training center, soldiers repaired a short section of tank trail and resurfaced a parking lot with gravel. The work provides a real-world learning opportunity and allows training center employees and contractors to focus on other projects.
For their annual training, the soldiers this fall spent three weeks at a U.S. military base in Germany, building roads and repairing helicopter landing pads.
“When it comes to earth-moving construction, we’re the heavy guys,” said Capt. Michael Boitano, the company commander.
As with all National Guard units, members come from across the state, but Boitano says the majority live in Central Washington.
Most have learned how to push dirt while wearing the uniform, but some work in civilian construction.
Except for the fact that all their $25 million worth of equipment is painted green and has more armor plating than a standard bulldozer, working construction in the National Guard isn’t that different than in the civilian world.
Having soldiers with a civilian construction background does come in handy. For example, when the company did not have surveyors available in Germany, soldiers with that expertise trained their colleagues to get the job done.
That sense of teamwork has developed into a larger camaraderie for the part-time soldiers, who sometimes travel across the state to hang out when they’re not on military duty and say they enjoy a family-like relationship with each other.
“We’ve always had fun. That’s the biggest thing I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” said Pfc. Sean Hammer, who graduated from East Valley High School and still lives in the Yakima area.
Hammer, 23, is a civilian range operator at the training center.
He says he likes the 286th because the unit gets the opportunity to make improvements in the places where they work, such as creating a rock crawl or improving roads in the Naches Ranger District of the Wenatchee-Okanogan National Forest.
Spc. Cody Swallow, another East Valley graduate who now lives in Ellensburg, said he uses some of those trails he’s worked on.
He said he considers training jobs like that an opportunity to “give back to the community and give back to ourselves at the same time.”
The unit has also done training missions at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, besides its work at the training center.
Steven Kruger, director of public works for the training center, said both the training center and the 286th benefit from the unit’s work. The training center has about 1,600 miles of mostly gravel road that need regular upkeep.
The training center can focus on other projects, and the soldiers get to complete real-world tasks, rather than training only for the sake of training.
It helps that the 286th is based on the training center.
“Whenever you have the equipment and personnel here, it just makes it that much easier,” Kruger said. “When they’re done, they’re living where the fruits of their labor are — they see it and they benefit from it.”
In addition to their construction experience and training to maintain readiness as Army soldiers, they have other roles.
As members of the state National Guard, they could be called on to perform either their standard mission or another duty, such as fighting wildland fires or patrolling during times of civil unrest. And as part of this region’s federal Homeland Emergency Readiness Response Force, they could called out to support the National Guard’s 420th Chemical Battalion, also based in Yakima.
The 420th is trained to respond to a variety of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive threats. Members of the 286th would provide security for those soldiers as they contain a situation or decontaminate victims, for example.
Top National Guard officials say the multiple roles represent the changing expectations imposed on today’s citizen soldiers.
“It is a great amount, and there is a lot going on. They’re very talented soldiers to be able to do it all at once,” said Lt. Col. David Hamilton, executive officer for the regional homeland response force.
Having that mix of capabilities, combined with living locally and knowing others who would be involved in emergency situations, will pay off for the public when needed, Hamilton said.
“That comes back to the original National Guard concept and that is, we are for the community,” he said.
For those used to the Hollywood depiction of daring exploits by infantry troops or Special Forces commandos, moving thousands of pounds of dirt might not seem as exciting.
But the soldiers of the 286th say they enjoy their jobs.
Sgt. Evan Poynter, 29, of Anacortes, said he’s wondered sometimes about another job in the Army after 13 years with engineering units.
But as he watches front-end loaders fill dump trucks with part of the 1,000 cubic yards of gravel that will be required to complete the weekend’s projects on the training center, he says he enjoys being able to take a construction job from start to finish and see the final outcome.
“I’m pretty sure this is the happiest I could be with what I do,” he said.
• Mark Morey can be reached at 509-577-7671 or firstname.lastname@example.org.