FORT McCOY, Wis. –
Possibly a little-known fact to most people is that the Army Reserve has boats. Actually, the Army, Army Reserve and Army National Guard together have about two dozen boat units, the most found in the Reserve Components.
It should come as no surprise, then, when Soldiers with an Army Reserve boat unit from Hammond, Wis., spends its two-week annual training here to polish their skills following a year of COVID restrictions that reduced hands-on practice. The 652nd Engineer Company (Multi-Role Bridge) brought nearly 60 12Cs, bridge crewman, from its main body and detachment in Cambridge, Minn., to train. The unit’s other detachment is located in Marquette, Mich.
“The last time the unit did this type of training was August 2019 because of COVID,” 1st Lt. Justin Kiel, unit executive officer, said. “Ideally, we’d like to do this two to three times a year.”
The training mission conducted on May 21, 2021, was to construct a ribbon bridge on Big Sandy Lake. The 12Cs practiced assembling and disassembling seven bays using bridge erection boats and cranes.
“Operating boats and assembling rafts is the bread and butter of 12Cs,” Kiel said.
He added, “Big Sandy Lake is a good location. It’s not a river where you’re fighting against the current. We need to train in different environments.” Big Sandy is 17-1/4 acres in size. The maximum gap the unit can extend its bays is 220 meters. Besides dropping the bays into the water off a crane, they can also be deployed by helicopter, called a helocast.
Kiel explained the two biggest jobs in the unit are the Raft Commander and the Equipment Park Chief: “Those guys really run the show.”
The Raft Commander is in charge of building the entire bridge. That person directs the boats. “He sees the big picture,” Kiel said. To communicate to the boat operators, the Raft Commander uses specific hand and arm signals defined by doctrine. “You have to be precise when moving bridge parts,” he added.
The Equipment Park Chief manages the traffic plan, including moving the cranes in and out of position to drop and pick up bays at the water’s edge. The remaining primary role is maneuvering the boats “The boats are somewhat autonomous in their activities,” Kiel said.
The unit gauged its effectiveness and efficiency by continually practicing assembling and disassembling a bridge. It can take twice as long to build a bridge as it does to take it apart. According to Private 1st Class Iryna Sachek, “the challenge is to make sure we’re doing the right job quickly to meet our goal.”
One of the newer members of the unit, Sachek joined the Army Reserve a year ago. She chose 12C because “it seemed the most interesting job. I like being on the water and I like the hands on aspect of the job,” she said. “Everyone is here for each other.”
The Sioux Falls, S.D., native also enjoys being part of the team work that is essential to construct a ribbon bridge so that units can use it to travel over bodies of water to conduct their mission. “We’re all passionate about the job,” Sachek said.
Sachek joined the Army Reserve to earn money for college. She’s currently working as a bank teller while taking time off from her studies at the University of Minnesota to pay off her school loans. Her employer “is very understanding, and getting off of work for training is never a problem,” she said.
A fellow 12C, Spc. Liam Shane joined the unit in 2018 and chose the military occupational specialty because “it was the neatest MOS out there. The stars aligned. This was the job I wanted.” He also received a $20,000 bonus for joining.
“It’s challenging getting back into the swing of things because of COVID,” Shane said. “Everything has to be perfect. There are a lot of details” in a ribbon bridge operation.