On an overcast October morning, the 249th Engineer Battalion, Prime Power, came together with linemen from across the globe at the National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame in Bonner Springs, Kansas, to showcase their unique skill set in the 39th Annual International Lineman's Rodeo.
The event brought the U.S. Army’s power generation specialists to the forefront, emphasizing how their expertise goes far beyond the battlefield, proving essential to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A gathering of elite linemen from the United States, Brazil and Canada, this rodeo provided an excellent opportunity for the U.S. Army’s 249th Engineer Battalion to demonstrate its capabilities in full-spectrum operations.
“It’s important for the public to see us out here,” said Maj. James “JD” Hala of Delta Company. “Whether it is supporting our partners like the FEMA during a crisis or the warfighter overseas, it gives them a better understanding of how we serve local, state, and national communities.”
The annual event brought the Battalion’s five companies and higher headquarters to the Kansas City District. It linked up active duty and reserve component Soldiers from Fort Belvoir, Fort Liberty, Schofield Barracks and Cranston, Rhode Island. Maj. Gen. James Kokaska Jr., deputy commanding general, Reserve Affairs and Command Sgt. Maj. Douglas Galick, USACE, were also in attendance supporting the 249th Engineer Battalion.
“It is a great honor to be here representing Alpha Company,” said Sgt. 1st Class Brandon Ecker, a 30-year career Soldier. “This will be my last rodeo,” he reflected.
Ecker hails from Mana Koa, the moniker for the 249th’s Alpha Company. Bravo Company are Hurricanes, Charlie Company are Spartans, Delta Company are Roughnecks and Higher Headquarters Company are Renegades. Regardless of immediate company affiliation, they all wear the traditional white hard hat with the iconic red castle of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The linemen, divided into journeymen and apprentice categories, showcased their skills in hurt-man rescue and various pole climb challenges, demanding not only expertise and finesse but also unequivocal adherence to safety. The event facilitates Prime Power Soldiers' hands-on experience in uncommon daily operations tasks. It allowed them to expand their critical skills, sharpen their expertise and become more proficient in various roles.
“This is an outstanding opportunity, and we appreciate the electrical community putting this together,” said Lt. Col. Langston Turner, commander, 249th Engineer Battalion. “The [Soldiers ] interact with fellow professionals within the industry — learn and take advantage of the tools and skill sets presented here that we do not normally get our hands on.”
During emergencies, the 249th Engineer Battalion works in lockstep with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Prime Power assists in power generation and distribution to help communities in times of crisis. These capabilities complement routine operations, including power requirement assessments, production, inspection, testing, maintenance, repair and overall upkeep of essential power infrastructures.
As Soldiers honed their craft and highlighted their capabilities at the rodeo, the 249th Engineer Battalion reinforced the notion that their skills extend well beyond linework and are indispensable to the broader mission of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
September is National Preparedness month, which is intended to raise awareness about the importance of preparing for disasters and emergencies across the country. Although the month of September is dedicated to this important observance, at the Kansas City District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Debris Planning and Response Team stands ready every day in case disaster strikes.
When a disaster occurs, whether natural or manmade, and the state in which it occurred is not equipped to handle the response and cleanup afterwards, the governor may declare a State of Emergency, which is needed prior to a request for federal assistance. The president then may declare a federal disaster, which allows for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to access federal funding for the cleanup. FEMA contracts with USACE Planning and Response Teams to execute the cleanup mission after a disaster.
“The Debris Planning and Response Team is … a district-sourced team of individuals that goes forward when municipalities request assistance with debris removal … during natural disasters,” said Rick Weixelbaum, national emergency preparedness program manager and natural disaster program manager at the Kansas City District. “When a state requests federal assistance, that’s when the President picks up the phone and calls FEMA. USACE is basically FEMA’s contractor.”
Within USACE, there are seven different planning and response team types that are part of FEMA’s federal response plan. These include critical public facilities, debris management, emergency power, infrastructure assessment, safety and occupational health, temporary housing and temporary roofing.
Across the USACE enterprise, there are multiple planning and response teams within each type. Currently, there are seven Debris Planning and Response Teams within USACE dedicated to debris management, the newest of which is located at the Kansas City District.
“In addition to the Kansas City Debris Planning and Response Team, USACE has six additional Debris Planning and Response Teams strategically disbursed throughout the enterprise in Mobile, Alabama, Sacramento, California, Fort Worth, Texas, Louisville, Kentucky, Vicksburg, Mississippi and Baltimore, Maryland,” said Weixelbaum.
Formed in June 2021, the district’s Debris Planning and Response Team can deploy to a disaster area in the continental U.S. within hours, should they be called to do so. On a deployment, the team is responsible for the project management and technical monitoring of debris removal.
“We are 14 [people] deep on the primary team and then I’ve probably got about that many on the alternate team,” said Weixelbaum. “On any given mission, I’ll source from both the primary and the alternate team to have one full team. We are ready, willing and able to deploy wherever we are called at a moment’s notice.”
While no USACE planning and response team is any more important than another, debris removal is perhaps the most visible in the aftermath of a disaster.
“To see what the task looks like when you get there and then when you leave, the before and after is just amazing,” said Weixelbaum. “Just looking at the physical nature of what debris removal does to the landscape … it’s very visible.”
More than just removing debris
For Weixelbaum, disaster and emergency preparedness are part of his everyday duties at USACE. But for the other members of the Kansas City District’s Debris Planning and Response Team, volunteering for the team provides opportunities they might not normally encounter at their day jobs with USACE.
Jim Workman, a section chief in the Kansas City District’s military branch, has been part of the district’s Debris Planning and Response Team since it was formed in 2021. But Workman has deployed with other USACE planning and response teams to various natural disasters for several years. He has deployed in response to wildfires, floods and hurricanes. His most memorable deployment was as part of a temporary power team, which responded to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017.
“One of the most rewarding [deployments] was Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico,” said Workman. “These people had been without power for months and you turn the power on and crank up the music and … it’s a party. They were really celebrating. So that was a really rewarding deployment.”
Although the atmosphere in Puerto Rico had the feeling of a party after power was restored, Workman emphasized the long days and hard work that are required when deployed as part of a planning and response team. For those who might be interested in volunteering for the district’s Debris Planning and Response Team Workman suggests they give it a shot.
“Don’t be afraid. It’s a great opportunity. Try it, if it’s not for you, that’s fine,” said Workman. “Rick [Weixelbaum] and everyone else involved, we are team people so we will help you along and make sure you are successful.”
According to Workman, there are many benefits of being part of the district’s Debris Planning and Response Team. He enjoys the opportunity to travel to different places across the country, work on projects that are outside of his day-to-day duties and meet people from all over USACE. But his favorite thing about being part of the Debris Planning and Response Team is the satisfaction that comes from helping others in times of need.
“It’s the satisfaction that you get from helping the people that have been devastated,” said Workman. “Just getting the citizens back to their day-to-day life that has been taken away from them, that is a great sense of accomplishment.”
Like Workman, Weixelbaum acknowledges the many benefits and unique opportunities that being part of the district’s Debris Planning and Response Team provides to its members. But like Workman, Weixelbaum’s favorite thing about the team is having the chance to help people during times of disaster and emergency.
“The mission is very rewarding if you have the personality that wants to help others recover to get them back to pre-incident way of life. The Debris Planning and Response Team is out there … with the survivors of these incidents, so there is a lot of return on investment for folks if that’s what they like to do,” said Weixelbaum. “Who doesn’t want to help people?”
There is only one maximum security prison in the U.S. that houses male U.S. military members that have been convicted of crimes or violations under the Uniform Code of Justice. That prison is located at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and is known as the United States Disciplinary Barracks.
The United States Disciplinary Barracks is part of a larger Military Corrections Complex located at Fort Leavenworth, which is comprised of the Joint Regional Correctional Facility and several support and administrative buildings. The United States Disciplinary Barracks is the facility which houses individuals sentenced to more than 10 years in prison, and the Joint Regional Correctional Facility is the facility which houses individuals sentenced to less than 10 years in prison.
As the world’s premiere public engineering organization, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for construction on U.S. military installations across the country. The Kansas City District’s area of responsibility covers five major military installations, to include Fort Leavenworth. That means when the Military Corrections Complex needs repairs and improvements, the Kansas City District answers the call.
The district is no stranger to constructing military corrections facilities at Fort Leavenworth. The district built the United States Disciplinary Barracks in 2002, and the Joint Regional Correctional Facility in 2010, replacing the historic United States Disciplinary Barracks that had been used since its construction in 1875. While the United States Disciplinary Barracks and Joint Regional Correctional Facility are much younger in age compared to the historic prison, they are due for some repairs and improvements.
“[the Kansas City District is] doing renovations on each of the prisons, as well as the miscellaneous support buildings,” said Jeffery Jensen, project engineer and contracting officer’s representative for the project.
Renovations include replacing the roofs, parts of the HVAC systems, fire alarm system, renovating the showers and making improvements to flooring in the dining facility. The list of renovations and improvements are not anything out of the ordinary for the Kansas City District, but working in an occupied corrections facility provides a unique set of challenges.
“[The United States Disciplinary Barracks and Joint Regional Correctional Facility] are active facilities,” said Maj. Stanley Kareta, former chief of staff, Kansas City District, and former Fort Leavenworth Resident Office project engineer. “We have to move in and around the occupants, the prisoners and the guards … that also means we are limited in how we phase the work.”
Security at the facilities is a top priority. Every contractor must go through a background check and pass a security checkpoint prior to entering the facilities. There is also an extensive contraband policy.
“The biggest thing is security,” said Jensen. “It’s the only thing that’s different than working on any other project.”
Although security and safety of all those involved are a top priority, renovations to the active facilities also require a high degree of synchronization between the agencies involved in the project.
“It’s normal construction work but being an active facility, you’ve got to have a lot of coordination between the facility, the Department of Public Works, USACE and the contractor,” said Kareta. “There’s just a lot of extra layers that go into it being an occupied building versus an unoccupied building. But once you build those relationships, you know who you can go to to get ahead of any issues.”
Construction on the project began in October 2020 and is scheduled to be completed later this year. The total cost of the project is $39.5 million. To some, these renovations might not seem to be that important or noteworthy. But for Jensen and his team, this is a high-stakes project.
“We have a whole bunch of prisoners and we have nowhere else to put them,” said Jensen. “We directed that these people have to be here, so we have to take care of them. This is a no fail mission.”
Military working dogs might look like your average pet, but they are highly trained animals used for security on military installations and in deployed environments. The Kansas City District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is currently working on the planning, design and construction of a new kennel facility for the working dogs of the 22nd Security Forces Squadron located at McConnell Air Force Base, or MAFB, in Wichita, Kansas. The current kennels were constructed several decades ago and require much-needed updates.
“[The current kennel facility is] just antiquated,” said Gary Shirley, military programs project manager with the Kansas City District, “it doesn’t meet the current requirements for housing working dogs.”
Like the training of military working dogs, the kennel facilities that house the dogs must meet strict requirements that are mandated by the Department of Defense, or DoD, and the U.S. Air Force. The DoD requires the use of a standard design template but allows for modifications to accommodate each specific facility. For example, the design for the new facility at MAFB will take into account sun and wind exposure, among other things.
“We take into consideration sun angles for the outdoor kennels so the dogs aren’t sitting out there in the late afternoon getting hot, or [ensure the dogs will not] get all northerly wind exposure,” said Shirley. “The design of the kennels themselves is absolutely critical.”
Shirley and his team understood that the design of the new facility needed to accommodate the specific conditions at MAFB, not only for the dogs but also for their handlers. The team ensured that the handlers of the 22nd Security Forces Squadron were part of the design process so that the new facility meets the needs of the unit.
Tech. Sgt. Noah Hyatt, kennel master for the 22nd Security Forces Squadron, joined the team in November 2022, and his first thought when he was asked to provide feedback on the new kennel design was to improve quality of life for the dogs.
“When I first took on this project and saw the kennel … the first thing I thought of was how to make the dogs more effective because without the dogs, there’s no handlers,” said Hyatt. “So first we take care of the dogs, giving them the space they need, giving them the ability to rest… Operationally, it will make things much easier.”
Overall, the current facility is insufficient for the handlers and the dogs who work there. According to Shirley, the current facility doesn’t meet nearly a third of the current DoD requirements. The Kansas City District is working to ensure that problem is not repeated with the new facility.
“The military working dogs have a very strict regimen that the trainers and the dogs have to follow,” said Shirley. “[The design staff] go through a great deal of care to make sure that these facilities are designed to generate the least amount of stress on the dogs.”
MAFB’s mission is primarily air refueling, a vital part of the Air Force’s capability. The 22nd Security Forces Squadron dog handlers support that mission in many different ways.
“We support [MAFB’s mission] through securing the installation and law enforcement and conducting security patrols,” Hyatt said. “Whenever we get different types of resources coming in on the ground, we use our explosives dogs to sweep the area that crews go into. We also deploy our dogs.”
With projects like this, USACE is able to remove barriers that inhibit servicemembers from performing a necessary job to ensure national security. The handlers take a lot of pride in their work, not only in the security they provide to the installation, but in training the dogs to be the best they can be.
“I think it’s the satisfaction that comes out of training the dogs,” said Staff Sgt. Joshua Espinoza Stewart, military working dog trainer. “Training dog teams and [certifying] them … I know, hey, I was able to train that team and put them out there, and now they’re in the fight.”
These working dogs are highly trained and highly skilled. The handlers of the 22nd Security Forces Squadron understand better than most, the duty and sacrifice that is asked of military working dogs. The respect that exists between the working dogs and their handlers is evident.
“You know, we talk about mental health of people in the military all the time, but it’s huge in the dogs as well and you can tell,” said Hyatt. “When dogs are in a better kennel environment, they don’t have these issues.”
By working with the handlers directly during the design phase, Shirley and his team were able to understand the importance of this project.
“This is about the animals,” said Shirley. “They needed this pretty badly.”
The new kennel facility, which is currently in the design phase, will be built from the ground up and cost about $5.3 million. The project has an anticipated completion date in 2026.
Progress in a profession is often the result of an innovator identifying an issue, proposing a solution and working to accomplish that solution. That is just what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Kansas City District did in 2012 when they collaborated with the Command and General Staff College, also known as the CGSC, hosted at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to develop a new educational program. CGSC is a joint, interagency, intergovernmental and multinational College, and was the perfect place for a program to teach more about USACE.
At the time, the Kansas City District identified a need for greater recruitment of officers into USACE, as well as a need for increased understanding across the U.S. Army of what USACE could provide to the nation. The solution they proposed, spearheaded by then district commander Col. Anthony Hofmann, was Training with Industry, or TWI, an educational program administered by the Kansas City District. The program is now an annual elective in the CGSC curriculum. The first few years of the program, the class averaged about 10 to 15 students. This year, 31 students participated in TWI, including international students from partner nations. The 2023 course started on April 6 and ran through May 31. Although the need to recruit officers into USACE is still ongoing, the benefits from the program have not gone unnoticed.
“[TWI] has received outstanding reviews by U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, U.S. Army Engineer School, USACE and CGSC,” said Larry Myers, executive officer for the Kansas City District and administer for the TWI program. “[It] was heralded by former Chief of Engineers, Lt. Gen Todd Semonite, as an innovative and excellent partnership with the U.S. Army warfighters.”
This year, students visited the KC Levees project, discussed lake operations and management at the Smithville Lake dam, toured the Lower Missouri River by boat, learned about water management and river maintenance activities and spent 10-12 hours job shadowing a USACE subject matter expert.
Students also attend a Q&A session with the Kansas City District commander, Col. Travis Rayfield, for a commander’s perspective on leading a district.
Lt. Col. John Chambers, deputy commander for the Kansas City District, provides command oversight for the TWI program. His role is focused on ensuring TWI continues to operate smoothly, while making sure the students receive training that is relevant to their specific interests.
“In the program we have engineer officers, we have non-engineer officers and we also have officer’s from sister services or other countries,” Chambers said. “I work with the USACE team to set up times for students to visit the project sites and business lines and ensure we have the right mix of mentors available for the interests of the CGSC students.”
During the program, the students are given a list of different USACE career fields where they could seek mentorship. For example, they could be partnered with a USACE employee working in hydropower, operations, hydrology or more. Although there is a list of approximately 15 topics students could choose from for the individual study and mentorship portion of the program, there is flexibility built in to support diverse interests.
“[Students] have the ability to propose other topics [for individual study], which the District is happy to support if they have the expertise available at the time,” said John Wettack, a professor at CGSC who administers the program. “For example, discussing geographic information systems, or GIS, and geospatial usage was a student-initiated topic several years ago that is now a staple of the program.”
Working with the TWI students is a learning experience for the USACE employees as well. Melissa Bean, a natural resource management specialist for the Kansas City District, is one of many USACE employees who work with the TWI students during the program. Within her career field, Bean engages with the students and helps determine their interests and learning goals.
“I really enjoy sharing our passion for the natural resource management missions with the next generation of leadership,” Bean said. “I gain a lot of understanding of their experiences and goals coming through CGSC and the Army as a whole, and I hope they walk away with the same [increased] knowledge of programs.”
Bean works with her team to tailor the visits to the lake projects during the program to make the most of the students’ time spent learning about the recreation and environmental stewardship programs within USACE.
“I think most of the students are surprised by the variety and complexity of programs under the recreation and environmental stewardship program,” Bean said. “The students were quickly engaged in discussions about facility and natural resource management, real estate outgrants, contracting, partnership agreements, public outreach and more.”
In addition to recreation and the other divisions within USACE, the Kansas City District even opened up the deputy district commander position as a mentor this year, with the intent being for a student to shadow the deputy commander and learn about what positions might be available to them after their developmental time in a tactical engineer unit.
Beyond opportunities for the active-duty officers, Chambers highlighted the benefits of exposure to USACE for students in the Reserves or National Guard. Beyond the importance of recruiting military officers for leadership positions, USACE also employs an approximately 98% civilian work force. USACE employs members of the National Guard and the Reserves in a civilian capacity and is a supportive and flexible place of work for part-time military members.
“This program helps other officers who are in the Reserves or National Guard understand their employment opportunities,” Chambers said. “It helps them understand what USACE provides for them, not just as a military employer but also a civilian one.”
Whether it’s mission, mentorship or employment opportunities, the program provides valuable information to the students that they can carry with them in their careers going forward. The education, exposure and experience TWI provides CGSC supports the college’s mission of educating, training and developing leaders for a wide variety of operational environments.
“Any time you can offer something that gets [the students] out … into something that more and more people are starting to see as a potential long-term career path, that raises interest,” said Wettack. “The ability of the [Kansas City] District to support this program with their time and personnel, and the energy and enthusiasm they provide into it, have made it what it is today.”