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NEWS | June 25, 2024

Army Reserve Soldiers flex skills on federal engineering projects to serve communities thanks to new legal authority

By Michel Sauret U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District

The site of shovels and heavy equipment was nothing new for Soldiers as they scooped dirt from various holes into wheel barrels, then dumped each load onto an ever-growing mound. Soldiers regularly dig foxholes or fighting positions in the field.

Except, they were not building defense or firing positions for a typical training exercise surrounded by enemy forces. Instead of weapon racks and crates of ammunition, Soldiers unloaded plastic slides and swing sets from the back of military utility trucks.

The project? A children’s playground.

As the Soldiers worked, picnic tables, pavilions, and a cool summer breeze surrounded them, not gunfire and wargames.

“I think it’s awesome being able to do a project that will be open to the public and used for many years to come,” said 1st Lt. Evia Nelson, a platoon leader from the 377th Engineer Company (Vertical Construction).

“We are able to show the world that we have the tools and the skills to take on anything,” she said.

The platoon of Soldiers digging dirt and pouring concrete belonged to a U.S. Army Reserve unit from Butler, Pennsylvania.

Building the playground was no child’s play, however. They worked the project in support of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They used their official military occupational skills for work that will serve the public and keep children safe.

“We met with the playground inspector, I never realized how much work and inspection goes into playgrounds,” said Nelson.

“There is so much planning that goes into building a playground, even just the depth of the pole, what’s under the pole to support it, how big each hole is, how much concrete to use. They inspect the playground weekly. That shows how important the safety is. You have to build it correctly,” she said.

For first time in years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can partner with military reserve units to use troops for labor at no cost, so long as the project relates to water resources.

But how is a playground related to federal waters? The playset not was not part of slip-and-slide splash park, after all.

The project took place at Crooked Creek Lake, one of 16 reservoirs managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District to limit downstream flooding. The federally-funded reservoir also benefits visitors who enjoy water sports or bring their families to the surrounding playgrounds and campgrounds. The Soldiers’ work will contribute to a better visitor experience.

“They are doing real work. It’s stuff we need done, and we have just been short-handed,” said Knox McRae, one of the three maintenance workers at Crooked Creek Lake. “We are trying to make things better for our visitors. It’s good training for the Soldiers, and it gives us a good product in return.”

The Water Resources Development Act of 2022 passed new authorizations, allowing USACE to use Army and military reserve labor for specific projects. Previously, USACE could not use reserve troops due to restrictions in fiscal law.

WRDA 2022 removed that restriction, and the Pittsburgh District is one of the first across USACE to take advantage of the new partnership.

“This arrangement is beneficial to USACE, military reserve unites and the taxpayer,” said James Shibata, the chief of the Programs and Project Management Branch for the Pittsburgh District.

“It uses funding more efficiently by limiting travel costs for reserve units and allows USACE to stretch funding by being able to accomplish more. It also benefits the taxpayer because we can get more done with the same amount of funds,” he said.

The reserve Soldiers operated heavy machinery, conducted project planning, used survey equipment, handled power tools, measured construction dimensions and materials, mixed and poured concrete – all skills they might use again on military projects in the future.

Many of those Soldiers have civilian careers in construction work. Some are plumbers, electricians, carpenters or union laborers.

“I work in concrete in my civilian life. That’s back-breaking work,” said Spc. Tristan DiMarco, who said he joined a vertical construction unit in the Army Reserve to get away from concrete.

“But when this project came up, they put me on the concrete team because of my experience. Man, I just can’t get away from it,” DiMarco said, laughing.

Joking aside, DiMarco said he was thankful to put his military skills to work in a way that could benefit the community. A few years ago, he would not have been able to build this playground as part of his official Army duty.

“Since we meet only once a month for battle assembly, sometimes it’s really hard to get that hands-on training, and to be able to do a project that involves concrete, gravel work, hands-on construction, it’s great being able to work with the Corps of Engineers because they’re able to get us those materials,” Nelson said.

She also mentioned that for some of the younger Soldiers new to the Army, this was their first big project together, and it was very rewarding. The project allowed her platoon to work together as a team and pass knowledge from the more experienced noncommissioned officers down to the junior Soldiers.

“The amount of knowledge I’ve seen pass on in just a few days of working here is crazy. I have learned so much just being here seven days,” Nelson said.

In May, the Pittsburgh District also partnered with the 366th Engineer Company to install electrical upgrades at the Michael J. Kirwan Dam and Reservoir, in Wayland, Ohio. A month later, it partnered with the 377th Eng. Co. for the new playground at Crooked Creek.

The Army Reserve Soldiers completed the playground in about 10 days, a project that would have taken the lake’s three-person maintenance crew about a month to complete.

The Soldiers benefit from this new authority by improving their skills on real-world projects with lasting value. In return, USACE benefits from the increased labor, which it does not have to fund. The Soldier’s salary is covered by the Army Reserve as part of its annual budget to meet training requirements.

For years, state agencies benefitted from similar partnerships with the U.S. Army National Guard, which is state-funded, but for the first time, congress passed law authorizing a partnership with reserve troops at the federal level.

Soldiers can perform projects that alight with their military occupational specialty or unit mission tasks to fulfill military training requirements. Soldiers must perform work that benefits water resources development projects or programs.

USACE can accept services and supplies from military units without having to reimburse them, since they are already federally funded. In addition to the Army, USACE includes agreements with the Navy Reserve, Marine Corps Reserve, Air Force Reserve, Coast Guard Reserve, and the Air National Guard when federally activated.

The projects can range in size and value. Military units can agree to work on projects valued up to $1 million by getting agreement documents signed by a USACE district commander, which is typically a colonel. In some cases, reserve forces can work on projects worth more than $1 million if they sign a USCE agreement at a 2-star general officer level.

Approved training activities can include facility construction, road grading or resurfacing, environmental restoration, clearing fire lines, removing flood debris, aerial inspections, heavy equipment operation, demolition and other construction projects.

USACE can provide supervisors, equipment, vehicles and materials to complete the projects. In fact, the Crooked Creek office had purchased the playground materials several years ago but had never found the time to install it due to other maintenance priorities around the lake. The Soldiers also used the concrete mixer belonging to Crooked Creek because it was larger and more efficient than the one they owned.

In the end, the Soldiers can stand by a unique project that not only improved their skills, but also something they can be proud to show the community.

“I have tons of cousins and nieces and nephews,” Nelson said. “I plan on bringing them here and show them what we can do, and being able to let people enjoy your work really makes you feel good.”