Nearly 50 Airmen traveled to Fayetteville, Tenn., in May to rebuild part of the Riverside Christian Academy campus after tornadoes devastated the town last year. The school suffered hundreds of lost trees and damage to several structures prompting civil engineers from Luke Air Force Base, Hill AFB, Utah, and Grissom Air Reserve Base, Ind., to respond.
Innovative Readiness Training, a program run by Air Force Reserve Command, facilitated the Airmen arriving in Tennessee. The program coordinates with communities, military bases, and Native American tribes, who meet certain legal, fiscal, and project requirements, to schedule Air Force Reserve Civil Engineer units to assist with construction projects.
According to school board chairperson Stephen Elrod, he started the approval process for the IRT program to assist in rebuilding the school in 2006. Despite several years of not being accepted, he now calls the delay a blessing for the school.
â€œI learned about the IRT program when I was working at the Pentagon as a U.S. Navy Reservist,â€ he said. â€œI thought it was a great program and I initiated the paperwork, nominating the school. We were a bit discouraged when we didnâ€™t get selected and for years it didnâ€™t seem like it was going to go anywhere. But the day the equipment finally rolled off the truck was the very same day the tornadoes hit. The Air Forceâ€™s timing couldnâ€™t have been better.â€
Of course, the Air Force had no way of knowing April 2011 would bring such devastation, but to the people of Alabama and Tennessee, the Airmen were angels in camouflage.
â€œThe Airmen were already on the ground and ready to work, which in itself was a blessing, but our needs changed drastically that day, and unexpectedly they had to reprioritize. We suddenly had more than one unit signing up to support the mission because there were so many different skill sets needed for this project. They said they could meet all their training tasks right here in this one locationâ€ Elrod said. â€œThatâ€™s how the 944th Fighter Wing ended up coming on board in May.â€
â€œThe IRTÂ program is a win-win,â€ said Senior Master Sgt. Anthony Harback, 944th Civil Engineer Squadron program analyst. â€œIt provides a much needed service while giving Airmen training and practice in their military career fields. When projects meet the level of training desired by a commander, that unit will commit to it for annual tour. Usually, multiple units will work the project over a time-phased period, giving engineers much needed â€˜stick timeâ€™ practicing their trade.â€
Harback says what his team accomplished in Tennessee closely resembles what they do in a deployed environment, maintaining an established base or bare base operations.
The team had three priorities during their annual tour. The first was to excavate a large multi-acre area of felled trees and top soil, re-establish compaction and grade for drainage and begin backfilling the area. Second, complete much needed preventive maintenance to the electrical, heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems for the school house. Third, begin block laying for an adjacent field house of showers and locker rooms. The team also placed 18 cubic yards of concrete and some underground plumbing in the new section of the field house.
â€œOur athletic area was hardest hit,â€ Elrod said. â€œThere were literally hundreds of trees everywhere. Our dugouts were completely collapsed and the stadium lighting pulled completely out of the ground. It was a mess.â€
Work at the sight is on-going and representatives at the school are extremely proud to have Americaâ€™s Airmen on the job.
â€œWe were already a patriotic town, but having these men and women in uniform here have just made that heartbeat stronger,â€ Elrod said. â€œWe are so grateful to the U.S. Air Force Reserve for this work and these Airmen. We canâ€™t thank them enough.â€
According to Harback, the work is a source of pride for the Airmen as well.
â€œWhen our guys go out and apply their trade in a field setting, seeing a tangible result for their efforts makes all the hard work worth it,â€ he said.
Adding to the heartfelt emotion, Harback said on his first site visit to the school, the children in the cafeteria stood up and applauded the Airmen for their service.
â€œSeeing that gratitude and feeling the level of respect and appreciation this town has for us just increases the sense of pride and workmanship,â€ he said. â€œWe are just as grateful to be there, serving our country, as they are to have us.â€