BROWNING, Mont. –
U.S. Army Reserve Soldiers from the 317th Engineer Construction Company (ECC) and U.S. Navy Sailors from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 14 wake up early to build a road in a place far from home. It's 8 a.m. and it is already uncomfortably warm as the Soldiers and Sailors start up their construction equipment. As the diesel engines on their vehicles roar to life and the machines push through the sand, dust billows up and makes the landscape look like another planet.
The land the service members are in is far from foreign though; they are in the northwest corner of the Montana. Here, within the borders of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, there lies a small town called Browning.
“The purpose of the project here is to build roads to create more housing,” said Craig Falcon, a leader in the local Blackfeet community. “We’re in a housing crisis. We’re definitely outgrowing our reservation.”
The Blackfeet population in Browning requested the help of the government to build a desperately needed road for a new housing development.
They did this through the Innovative Readiness Training (IRT) program, a project that fulfills the needs of civil society and the military. Local communities contact the IRT to ask for help with projects ranging from infrastructure and transportation to healthcare and cyber security. The IRT then finds a unit in the military that can meet the needs of that community while also providing valuable training for the service members in a real-world environment.
“It was a great training opportunity for the Soldiers that wanted to learn how to run the equipment,” said Sgt. 1st Class Keith Albrecht, a noncommissioned officer with the 317th ECC. “A project like this is great for training. You get to use every piece of equipment that the engineers would normally use.”
In the first week of June the engineers arrived and were welcomed by the citizens of the town with open arms. The community taught classes to inform the Soldiers and Sailors about the local culture, asked them to march in a parade, and even invited service members to participate in a traditional sweat lodge ceremony.
Falcon said the local Blackfeet population hopes the soldiers can return in future years to build more roads to ceremonial grounds and to become more involved in the Blackfeet way of life.
This training doesn't just improve local infrastructure; it improves unit readiness. The Soldiers of the 317th ECC came in rotations of one platoon at a time for a period of two to three weeks, with their mission ending in the last week of July. In that time they constructed dirt roads on two different job sites, laying the groundwork for local developers to begin construction on new neighborhoods.
“So the roads they came and built and repaired are greatly appreciated,” Falcon said. “It’s saving our tribe hundreds of thousands of dollars to be able to go into those areas and build new housing for our families and even create businesses to expand the town itself.”
At the end of the last rotation of Soldiers and Sailors the transformation of the landscape is stunning. What were once fields of dead grass and rocky soil are now roads that lead to new homes and better futures for the people living on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.