You can find Oregon National Guard soldiers serving in Afghanistan, fighting fires, battling floods — and building play structures and picnic pavilions.
Yes, playgrounds. A couple years ago, the tiny town of Heppner wanted to improve its city park, but had few dollars to pull it off. The city council called in the Oregon National Guard.
A week ago, members of the 234th Engineer Company out of Camp Rilea (near Warrenton) took up residence in Heppner. Monday, about 80 Guardsmen and women dotted Heppner’s Hager Park. Some put finishing touches on a picnic pavilion, while another group installed an underground sprinkler system. At the foot of the nearby Willow Creek Dam, a skid-steer loader operator removed stinky biological sludge from the dam’s spillway. At Morrow County’s Cutsforth Park, about 22 miles out of town, the soldiers installed electrical and water lines to nine camp sites and built 900 feet of sidewalk. While helping communities, the civilian soldiers hone their engineering skills.
The deal is fairly simple — the soldiers bring the manpower and the tools, the community provides the materials.
“They come and hone their skills while working for cities that don’t have resources to get things done,” said Heppner City Manager Dave DeMayo this week.
The community service is attracting a lot of love — in the form of waves and smiles and kind words — from the community. When local children tried out the new play structure Sunday, they telegraphed their pleasure to the engineering unit. “The place was covered with kids,” said WOC Patrick Bunten. “One little girl with Coke bottle glasses flashed a two thumbs up.”
The work provides training opportunities. Bunten trained seven soldiers to use a Ditch Witch to carve trenches for the Hager Park sprinkler system. He had used a similar piece of equipment while deployed.
“I ran one of those for 10 months in Iraq and West Africa installing utilities for water and waste,” he said. The Heppner work joins an eclectic list of other National Guard community construction projects. Soldier engineers helped rebuild Fort Umpqua in Elkton. They constructed bucking chutes for Union’s Eastern Oregon Livestock Show and built a football stadium in Warrenton. SFC Katy Pritchard said every project presents a different engineering challenge for the soldiers.
DeMayo heard about the program — called Innovative Readiness Training — while attending the League of Oregon Cities conference two years ago in Eugene. As he listened, the wheels started turning in his brain. DeMayo returned to Heppner and approached the city council about applying for National Guard labor to update Hager Park and got the OK. The request grew to encompass work at Cutsforth Park.
Pritchard, who helps oversee the Heppner project, said the program is a huge win-win for both the National Guard and communities. “The reality is that we’re here to keep our soldiers trained for deployment,” she said. “But, this helps us both. Not only are we giving something to our local communities by doing IRT projects but the community is giving back to us, by providing the training we need to stay proficient.”
Pritchard said it generally takes about two years from application to completion. Sometimes funding is the hold-up, she said. Other times, the community must jump some environmental hoops. Warrenton High School, for instance, needed to do some wetlands mitigation before the soldiers could finish the school’s athletic fields. Once communities experience the program, she said, “They go crazy requesting more projects.”
Pritchard said the 1249th Engineer Battalion, of which the 234th is part, has multiple units.
“Some of us build things,” she said. “Some of us blow things up. Some of us knock things over.” Sometimes, she said, different units work together when the project calls for both demo and building. Upcoming projects include building an amphitheater at the Washington County Fairgrounds, excavating a softball field at North Salem High School, constructing a parking lot at an Albany YMCA, making a running track in Monroe, putting in a sidewalk at the Siletz Tribal Center and demolishing an old staircase form the side of a cliff near Hood River.
During their stay in Heppner, the soldiers are bunking in the high school cafeteria. Command central is the school’s home ec room. “The program is phenomenal,” Pritchard said. “Part of it is being out in a community and showing off our skills.”
Eligible projects must fill a community need and not compete with the private sector. Youth-oriented projects and those requested by government entities or economically-challenged communities have the highest chance of being chosen.
Contact Kathy Aney at email@example.com or 541-966-0810.
This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.