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NEWS | June 26, 2019

Getting It Done - 358th Engineer Company builds clinic in Guatemala

By Master Sgt. Ryan Matson 652nd Regional Support Group

Sgt. 1st Class Andrew Pearce had a problem.

The 358th Engineer Company, Pearce’s Army Reserve unit out of New Cumberland, Pennsylvania that falls under the 412th Theater Engineer Command, was tasked with building a medical clinic in Tojocaz, Guatemala, as part of their annual training in support of U.S. Army South. Unfortunately, when the 358th fell in on the project for their three-week rotation in June, it was already several days behind.

“When we first came here, I was very concerned,” Pearce, a native of Lewistown, Pennsylvania, said. “I knew where the project stood and where I needed it to be. I looked at the diversity of the Soldiers, and I thought I didn’t really have the skill set to get it done.”

The diverse team included Soldiers from Haiti, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, West Africa and throughout Pennsylvania. Many of the Soldiers had limited experience beyond their initial military training, and many had completely different jobs in the civilian sector, such as Spc. Edgar Allen, a military plumber who works as a civilian information technology specialist.

What the Soldiers may have lacked in experience they made up for with in enthusiasm and adaptability. Pvt. Zakiya Magid, a supply specialist born in the Bronx, but who grew up in Ghana, was new to the Army and on her first annual training. She had never worked any construction, and is a self-admitted introvert.

“The first day we got here I was like, oh my God what are we gonna do?” Magid recalled. “I was really nervous.’”

“Sgt. 1st Class Pierce came up to me and asked me if I knew how to do it (mortar and block work). I told him ‘No, sergeant,’ and he said ‘Well here, let me show you,’ and that was it. I started slinging it, then on the third day. Spc. Zombro, he taught me how to lay a block, so I know how to do that now, which is pretty amazing.”

Two days later, Magid looked as if she had been “slinging mud” her entire life. 

“I pretty much like everything about it,” Magid said. “The Army teaches you stuff that in the civilian world you would have to pay to learn.”

Magid was paired with an experienced construction Soldier, Sgt. Brett Baginski, from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Baginski is a civilian site foreman and a technical engineer with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 365th Engineering Battalion, in the military who volunteered to augment the 358th on the mission.

“I made sure people knew what my skill set was and that I’d be able to provide some sort of asset in the field, so they have me out here helping them sling some mud, get some bricks set up, and just kind of manage what’s going on.”

Pierce said the Soldiers worked, long hard hours – one night from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m. – without a complaint. In a week’s time, the team of 15 Soldiers, mostly relatively inexperienced, went from a concrete pad with five or six courses of block to a 14-course structure with windows and a roof. They went from being behind schedule to moving ahead. 

Pierce said the Soldiers drew on each other for inspiration.

“We respect one another, not just people’s ranks, but they also respect each other as people,” Pierce said. “They knew that they had to come together to make this happen and knowing the fact that one of the Soldiers is originally from Guatemala, and that we’re here to help this community, I really think that everybody has just pulled together to say ‘We want to do this.’”

Sgt. Michael Collazo, a heavy equipment operator from York, Pennsylvania, relayed a particularly touching moment on the job.

“I was using a circular saw when a group of people came up to me and asked if they can see the build site,” Collazo said. “I said I’ll ask my Noncommissioned Officer, and he said that’s fine, just give them hard hats.”

“It turned out that two of the people were the elected leader of Tojocaz, and the lone medical professional who worked at the current clinic and will work at the new building. The woman said she had been working so long in a small building that she was astounded by the new facility she would work out of. She became very, very emotional, to the point I almost thought I was going to cry myself.”