By Master Sgt. Gregory Ripps, 149th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published August 17, 2009
YEREVAN, Armenia -- The 149th Fighter Wing Civil Engineer Squadron can now add Armenia to the list of countries around the world where it has deployed.
At the beginning of August, 45 of the 149th civil engineers (CEs) - plus two medical and two public affairs personnel from the wing - flew here from San Antonio, Texas, with some basic tools and supplies to tackle a handful of security cooperation and humanitarian assistance projects.
"These projects not only provide excellent opportunities for our CEs to practice their skills but also offer them experience in deploying to a far-away, developing country and interacting with its people," said Lt. Col. Susan Vaneau, squadron commander. "They have to learn how to deal with situations when tools or supplies are not readily available."
Armenia, nestled in the south of the Caucasus Mountains, and whose several immediate neighbors include Turkey and Iran, is an ancient country but has been dominated by other countries for centuries. Only since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 has a truly independent Armenia re-emerged.
With every step toward accomplishing a project here, the CEs encountered a challenge, the chief among them being a language with which none of them were familiar and having at each project site, no more than one interpreter, who might not always be available. Another challenge was coordination of the bus transportation, arranged through the U.S. Embassy, between the job sites and to and from the Military Aviation Institute, where the Texans were billeted. Still another challenge was obtaining necessary parts and tools when other challenges arose at the project sites.
"Use your imagination" and "Be flexible" quickly became slogans for the deployment.
The primary project was to continue work on the Expeditionary Medical Support (EMEDS) building on the grounds of the Military Central Hospital here. The 25 by 100-foot building dedicated to housing medical equipment, supplies and tents that Armenian military medical personnel who comprise the EMEDS team will use to provide rapid response to natural disasters or military contingencies.
"We needed a separate space to store our EMEDS equipment," explained Maj. (Dr.) Ara Ghazaryan. A weapons of mass destruction expert and a physician at the hospital, he became involved in the project because of his fluency in English. He noted that the EMEDS team was already formed and equipment was temporarily stored elsewhere. "Our government and yours made an agreement to build the building for us."
"Dr. G," as he was fondly addressed by the Texas National Guard Airmen, also had also served as a liason with the Kansas National Guardsmen who laid the concrete pad and erected the basic building during two weeks before the Texans arrived.
"It all started in 2007 when Armenia wanted to develop its own Expeditionary Medical Support system," said U.S. Army Maj. Michael McCullough, chief of the Office of Defense Cooperation at the U.S. Embassy in Armenia. "We began looking at 'mobility' [deployable CEs] to build the facility."
Major McCullough said the EMEDS package would boost the Armenian military's ability to contribute to global operations.
"The facility is the first step in the certification process for deployment," he continued, adding that the EMEDS team, whose officers and noncommissioned officers have received training in the United States, would be deployable in 2010. "And because Armenia is in a seismic zone [susceptible to earthquakes], the EMEDS will be a national asset for internal emergencies as well."
The 149th CEs installed insulation and weather proofing, provided the electrical wiring for air conditioning units and light fixtures along with switches and outlets, and built a two-room office in the back of the building. The engineers also had to make several trips to the embassy to pick up materials.
Captain Martinez, who led approximately half the CEs in completing the EMEDS project, said, "It was good [training] for them to go to a place, have to decide what they needed and determine how to get it."
The CEs got the job done, and on Aug. 11, they connected the EMEDS building's electricity and "fired it up" for Dr. G and several representatives from the Armenian Ministry of Defense. "The CEs did very good work," said Dr. Ghazaryan. "I watched them.... They don't skip anything."
Dr. Ghazaryan added that once the EMEDS equipment is formally accepted, it will be moved to the building.
Meanwhile, other 149th CEs were involved in humanitarian assistance projects. Major McCullough said these projects addressed specific needs identified in the immediate area. "They are a great tie-in to developing the EMEDS," he said.
St. Grigor Lusavorich Medical Center was the site of one of the projects, and an obvious tie-in to Armenia's ability to respond to large-scale emergencies. Built in 1977, the 800-bed multi-service hospital was named after Armenia's patron saint, who is credited for Armenia becoming the world's first officially Christian country. St. Grigor's and three other hospitals established the medical system for the entire country. The CEs' task was to help with the rehabilitation of three classrooms/conference rooms for the hospital's Regional Training Center.
A number of nurses from St. Grigor's studied emergency medicine in the United States, according to Nellie Tedevosyan, chief of the hospital's international affairs and information department.
"Now they teach medical students emergency medicine in the pre-hospital and hospital stages at the center," said Mrs. Tedevosyan, who also served as interpreter at the site.
The CEs' original objectives included replacing the flooring, but after tearing up the old flooring - about 160 square meters -- they realized extensive electrical work had to be accomplished before further improvements could be made.
"This entailed routing the plaster walls to run the electrical wire for the ceiling lights, wall-mounted lamps, light switches and electrical outlets," said Master Sgt. John Montoya, noncommissioned officer in charge of the task. "The obstacles were the language barrier and supplies and tools needed, but the team overcame all the obstacles and proceeded on completing the project."
Another project site was Shengavit's Region No. 301 Nursery. What Americans would call a children's day care center, the nursery serves about 150 children between 18 months and 6-1/2 years of age. It includes learning rooms, recreation rooms, nap rooms, child-scaled bathrooms, a kitchen and eating areas, and even a laundry room. Nelly Mixailovna, the principal, said through her interpreter that the two-story concrete masonry structure was built in 1983. But Capt. Vincent Salazar, project officer for this site, said the plumbing and wiring appeared much older or at least reflected older workmanship.
Captain Salazar noted that the original task was to complete rehabilitation of five rooms on the first floor. However, one thing soon led to another. Installation of new light fixtures required new wiring, and the new wiring required a new distribution box.
Master Sgt. David Lewis pointed out some places where old, bare wiring had been strung along the wall.
"These things are clearly unsafe for kids," Sergeant Lewis said. "If a child touches an exposed wire...." He left the sentence uncompleted and just shook his head.
The CEs had to put off painting the walls until they completed the electrical work, patched walls - even reinforcing one wall panel to keep it from falling - replaced some of the woodwork, and smoothed down and wiped off the walls.
"They never have everything they need, but when they're finished, it will be beautiful," said Sergeant Lewis. "They never cease to amaze me."
Other CEs repaired or replaced plumbing fixtures, fixed a sink counter and stopped a leak from a tub.
"When we walked in, there were hazardous electrical conditions, and there were two restrooms with no running water, and three toilets that were inoperable," Captain Salazar added. "We left the place a lot safer than when we found it.
"The occupants expressed their gratitude," he continued. "When we arrived they were staring at us; before we left, they were smiling at us."
A last site of the CEs' projects was the Military Aviation Institute, which the Texans called home for most of two weeks. Armenia's center for training its future pilots and signal corpsmen, the austere, gated campus is located on Yerevan's southeast side. Most of the CEs slept in one of three open bays, using part of a building where Armenian cadets also billeted. A brisk walk around the main building took them to the dining facility, where they ate breakfast and supper, which always consisted of an assortment of cheese, cold-cuts and fresh fruit, along with Armenian dishes whose ingredients they couldn't always identify.
Master Sgt. William Strodtman led the work detail to install two large air conditioning units atop the simulator room in the institute's main building. Again the straight-forward tasking proved more complicated when they had to find brackets and came up against an unexpectedly thick, stubborn wall. "It took hours just to drill through the wall," said Sergeant Strodtman. "But we got the job done."
As work wrapped up on all the projects, the work to redeploy began. Despite frustrations and inconveniences to go with arduous work, there was one day of recreation and a few brief evening excursions to ensure happy memories of the deployment. Most of the CEs knew it was unlikely they would ever return to Armenia. They hoped someone else would pick up where they left off.
"Even though we had difficult challenges, all the teams considered all the options and thought outside the box," said Captain Martinez. "They not only successfully completed the mission and their training, but also bonded together as a squadron."