One year ago, 20 Airmen with the 137th Special Operations Wing deployed in support of Operation Allies Welcome. This team included Maj. Neil Chaves, who was assigned as the Task Force Liberty civil engineer team commander at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey.
The initial CE team of about 10 people was first tasked to set up housing for those evacuating from Afghanistan. The initial village included around 4,000 Afghan guests.
The CE Airmen were responsible for everything including installing fencing and barriers for security perimeters, working plumbing around the clock, ordering materials, biohazard waste disposal, conducting surveys and putting together proposals and designs for construction projects.
The volume and demand of the work could be a struggle for Airmen, so Chaves worked to establish a team that could support all the necessary CE functions of facilities as well as develop processes that could improve morale and quality of life for the Airmen and Afghan guests by bringing the communities together.
“We installed over 7 miles of fencing in the month I was commander, but I couldn’t tell you how much of it I personally installed,” Chaves said. “We worked closely with the 87th Civil Engineer Group and contractors until we could justify the requirement to have our own squadron and supply system within the task force.”
The single village ultimately developed into three villages housing more than 12,000 in less than a month, and the CE team grew to 72 personnel.
The team managed 60 acres and covered over 30 structures, taking on dozens of work orders in a day. While the team grew, the Airmen still had to adapt to new problems each day.
“My unique challenge was to go into an environment where nothing was really established — chains of command and mission directives would continuously change. My job changed three times in the first day,” said Chaves. “We all had to use our resources, network and learn our jobs quick to support a mission that was going at full turbo speed. As all members realized that we would have to operate as a team of uniforms, and not separate teams in our functions, we started to keep pace with the mission.”
For him, the most rewarding part of the experience was watching barriers to understanding between service members and the Afghan guests be broken. The project that spoke most to that integration of ideas and improvements to quality of life was a walking path between Villages 1 and 3 and Village 2.
“Despite having a shuttle service, the guests preferred to walk,” he noted. “We built a mile-long walking path complete with barriers and fencing that was still under construction by the time I left. My biggest victory is how we all developed an understanding of one another and came together as a large team, including the Afghan guests themselves, to get the mission done.”
One year later and Chaves is in a very similar position as Mission Sustainment Team officer in charge. Mission Sustainment Teams are composed of multi-capable Airmen from various career fields who support Agile Combat Employment strategies by setting up and sustaining secure, livable conditions in austere environments.
The first iteration for the 137th SOW began right after Chaves returned from Operation Allies Welcome.
“I wanted to be a part of something similar with the challenge of starting a new program, having no information or guidance, and carrying it forward at full speed ahead,” said Chaves. “The main thing that I feel we have done a great job with is taking our experience of knowing that ‘it can be done no matter what’ from last year in New Jersey and bringing that energy to the table. We use scenarios from last year, today, and our team understands that ‘no’ is not an option. We have to ask: How can we?”
A year ago, the Mission Sustainment Team concept was barely a twinkle in Air Force Special Operation Command’s eye. Now, the first 137th SOW MST is leaving the developmental phase of training and injecting in national exercises, most recently at Northern Strike 22.
The 137th MST also works closely with the 1st SOW and 27th SOW to share best practices and has hosted other Air Force Reserve units looking to study the curriculum as they develop their own MST training plan.
“One thing I’ve noticed in my experience as active duty versus Guard is that we are already starting as multi-functional Airmen, whereas active duty are very specialized in their skillset,” Chaves said. “In the Guard, we have that Air Force specialty plus other talents we bring from our civilian life so our training structure is unique to those abilities.”
Tech. Sgt. Stephanie Holt is a member of the first 137th SOW MST from the 137th Special Operations Civil Engineer Squadron, but initially began her career in active-duty Air Force as part of the Traffic Management Office in logistics. After four years, she transitioned into the Air National Guard as a heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems specialist in civil engineering before cross training to become a firefighter.
“Part of our initial training involved inventory shipping/receiving and HVAC, so I was comfortable performing those tasks and helping others,” Holt said.
As a civilian, she is a firefighter and has a small woodworking business, meaning if called upon to establish a base as part of MST, Holt can draw upon her experience in light carpentry, as well as HVAC and fire systems, to create sustainable living conditions.
“The Air Force has operated a certain way for a really long time, so in the beginning the MST as a concept was interesting and just a little off since everyone had one job they are trained to do and that’s it,” Holt said. “I think it’s a really cool concept because I feel like not only military-side but also in everyday life it’s beneficial for everyone to be well versed in a lot of different things.”
Guardsmen are unique in that they have civilian skillsets that can be completely different from what they do in the military. A civilian police officer might be a vehicle maintainer in the military, or an Air Force communications specialist might own a construction business.
“We pretty much already have multi-capable Airmen in my opinion,” Holt said. “From the beginning, we had a mix of people who had been in for over ten years to brand new Airmen, so our insights were very different. We would have hour-long discussions about what we needed to be training on, and we were going to classes and exercises and working with other active duty MSTs to refine our process. Now our curriculum is being used to train our next incoming team.”
The next big focus for the team is mission planning: considerations like what needs to be ordered and transported to the location versus what can be sourced locally once the team is on the ground. They are developing a checklist to use for legal and contractual bounds, such as if they need to bring local currency, or if there are specific legal or contractual restrictions for purchases.
“Of course, we will show up and nothing will go as planned,” Chaves laughed as he discussed developing their curriculum from mission planning to deployment.
“But the MST program is nothing new,” he continued. “It just took time for us to learn it is better to train as a whole versus training separately and only once we’ve deployed do we discover each other’s talents. That’s why our scenarios are not specific to more old-school training of going out to the field and facing attacks. We could face natural disasters, or refugees coming to our bases for help, and we need to be training outside of the box so that we will be flexible to doing whatever we need to make the mission happen.”