Reserve Marines and Army personnel oversee the extension of a runway during Integrated Readiness Training Old Harbor, June 1, 2017, in Old Harbor, Alaska. Marine Aircraft Group 41 led the exercise, during which service members trained in a wide variety of skills while extending Old Harbor’s runway from 2,700 feet to 4,700 feet helping facilitate economic development. Courtesy photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Joint Training Helps Preserve a Culture
By Marine Corps Capt. Caleb Peterson
Marine Forces Reserve
OLD HARBOR, Alaska, Aug. 9, 2017 — Marines from units across Marine Forces Reserve participated in Innovative Readiness Training Old Harbor, Alaska, April 3-Aug. 8.
The small Alaskan village, located on Kodiak Island, was home to a runway extension project that fell under the Defense Department’s Innovative Readiness Training program. The IRT program began in 1992 when DoD searched for innovative programs to serve American communities in need and provide realistic military training benefits. The runway extension in Old Harbor was one such project.
Marine Air Group 41 was the IRT Old Harbor project lead and managed multiple units from different branches of military service in executing the project. Participating units included Marine wing support squadrons 471, 472 and 473, Marine Air Control Group 48, the Army’s 907th and 407th engineer battalions, Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 14, the Arizona and Montana National Guard and the Guam Air National Guard. Nearly 2,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines set up camp in this rural, picturesque part of Alaska.
Preserving a Culture
The primary mission of IRT Old Harbor was to extend the community’s runway from 2,700 to 4,700 feet to help facilitate economic development. This year marked the fifth year Reserve Marines participated in this IRT.
“The concept of the project is to expand the runway to develop the economic community,” said Rick Berns, mayor of Old Harbor. “We are a fisheries-based community, and we want to develop a processor in the community instead of sending all our fish products out to other locations. We can develop it right here locally, and by doing so the community expands jobs for the locals. Part of our plan on this whole thing is to develop our shipping and transportation and that’s where the airport expansion comes into play so we can get larger aircraft to move product out of here.”
While the project was about economic development, the community’s goal was about so much more. This annual project is instrumental to the survival of the community and culture as urban outmigration is on the rise.
“We are working very hard to develop a healthy community with a strong economy, and the Old Harbor Airport Safety and Extension Project is imperative for us to be successful,” said Cynthia Berns, the vice president of administration and external affairs for the Old Harbor Native Corporation. “We are losing many of our rural villages throughout Alaska due to the high rural-to-urban outmigration. We are working diligently so that we have a sustainable community where families can make a decent living and raise their children close to their cultural roots and subsistence lifestyle.”
“This project will prove to be very beneficial to our community and the State of Alaska by providing a safer and improved airfield and the infrastructure required for economic development,” she said. The community is grateful for the support the IRT projects provide, Berns said, as it is vital for the safety, economic growth, and sustainability of the community.
The Marine Corps Reserve is one of the most geographically dispersed commands in the Marine Corps, with units in 160 different locations throughout the U.S. and its territories. In many cases, Reserve Marines grew up in the towns where they now serve part time, so providing value to communities is an important part of the Marine Corps Reserve mission.
Mission Essential Joint Training
But at the end of the day, Reserve Marines are warfighters, and they must be able to fight or respond to crises when the nation asks them to. Readiness is crucial, and reserve Marines must meet the same unrelenting standards as their active duty brothers and sisters, but with a fraction of the time available to train. So they must maximize the training time they have available. For their part, projects like the runway extension in Old Harbor and other projects under the IRT program allow them to do just that.
“The project is just larger scale, you get a lot more equipment time, and a lot of stick time,” said Air Force Senior Airman Samuel Rexer, a pavement and construction journeyman with the 354th Support Squadron. “It’s been a good experience.”
The austere and remote nature of Old Harbor was an added training benefit that is rarely duplicated in a typical annual training cycle. This year was the largest and most productive year to date.
“We got roughly 500 feet of usable runway done this year and we have done multiple blasts to create more rock,” said Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Randy Graftema, the IRT Old Harbor project coordinator. “In some spots we have raised the ground 80 feet. We have had to divert streams and completely blast rock.”
Due to the scale and size of the project, service members were able to train on a wide variety of mission essential tasks, which included establishing and operating a forward operating base, conducting tactical water and hygiene services, conducting tactical electrical supply, conducting horizontal and vertical construction, conducting engineering and transportation operations, blasting and many more. These functions are essential on the modern-day battlefield.
“This year we have more equipment than any other year. We brought out more equipment from owning units and rented more equipment this year so we are a lot bigger operation this year,” Graftema said. “We rented two 470 excavators, a D10 dozer and a D9 dozer, two 20-ton dump trucks and three compactor-vibrators.”
This year, a total of more than 100,000 cubic yards of rock were moved. To put that in perspective, a 100,000-cubic yard tank would hold over 20 million gallons of water.
The Arizona National Guard added an extra capability this year by bringing in blasting operations. Blasting was an integral part of this year’s operations and without the addition, the project would have stalled as there would have been no rock to move to the runway. The IRT Old Harbor project helped the Arizona National Guard gain proficiency and experience by being able to perform many more blasts than in a typical year.
“Usually back home we do one production blast a year; out here we have done eight production blasts,” said Army 1st Lt. Kevin Sartor, a platoon commander with the 259th engineer platoon. “It’s been pretty amazing. Just to see the camaraderie. I mean there are some commonalities between the different branches, definitely differences. But you know it gets down to crushing rock and moving earth. Seeing how we work together to accomplish the mission I think for me is the most interesting part.”
Marines must be ready to fight tonight. A critical component of that readiness is the ability to integrate seamlessly not only with the active components of our respective branches of service, but also with one another. This project created an opportunity for Marines to train alongside soldiers, sailors, airmen and Coast Guardsmen so that when the time comes to respond to our nation’s crises, we are a ready team.
“We are a joint force out here. Working with the other branches has been a really good experience. Everybody is working together really well,” Graftema said. “We work under the aspect of one team, one fight.”