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Gunnery Sgt. Brandon Watson (center), project coordinator for Innovative Readiness Training Old Harbor, Alaska, briefs a group of distinguished visitors from different military branches and civilian agencies July 11, 2016. IRT Old Harbor is part of a civil and joint military program to improve military readiness while simultaneously providing quality services to underserved communities throughout the United States.

Photo by Sgt. Ian Leones

MARFORRES Marines improve Alaskan infrastructure during IRT Old Harbor

19 Jul 2016 | Sgt. Ian Leones Marine Corps Forces Reserves

Marines from units across Marine Forces Reserve are participating in Innovative Readiness Training Old Harbor, Alaska, April 26 – August 6, 2016.

IRT Old Harbor is part of a civil and joint military program to improve military readiness while simultaneously providing quality services to underserved communities throughout the United States. The primary mission of the exercise is to construct a 2,000-foot extension of Old Harbor’s airport runway. This year marks the fourth year Reserve Marines have participated in this IRT.

“Up to this year, the previous participants have moved up to 500,000 cubic yards of material,” said Staff Sgt. John V. Geary, maintenance chief and camp commandant for IRT Old Harbor. This year we have moved about 155,000 yards so far and we are looking to move over 200,000 yards by the end of the project this year.”

The Marines involved in this year’s exercise come from Marine Wing Support Squadron 473, Marine Aircraft Group 41, 4th Marine Aircraft Wing; MWSS-472, MAG 49, 4th MAW; Marine Air Support Squadron 6, Marine Air Control Group 48, 4th MAW; 6th Engineer Support Battalion, 4th Marine Logistics Group, and Environmental Services Detachment. Also joining the Marines were augments from the Army National Guard, Army Reserve and Air National Guard.

Revitalizing a community

The Innovative Readiness Training program began in 1992 when the Department of Defense searched for innovative programs to serve American communities in need and provide realistic military training benefits. The three primary areas of emphasis were health care, infrastructure support and youth training areas.

Old Harbor, a small community on Kodiak Island, is highly dependent on the fishing industry. In order to support economic expansion, the Old Harbor Native Corporation, the City of Old Harbor and the Old Harbor Tribal Council have been working to establish infrastructure needed to start a fish processing operation in the community. In order to develop a fish processing plant necessary to support this operation, a larger airstrip is needed to accommodate larger aircraft that can export fresh fish products.

"Without the support of the IRT program, the Marines, and all the other participating units, this project would be dead in the water,” said Cynthia R. Berns, the vice president of administration and external affairs for the Old Harbor Native Corporation. 

While the state of Alaska provided financial support initially, due to budget constraints they have had to pull back a lot of financial support from the project. Without IRT Old Harbor, the project would be on hold until funding becomes available.

 “The problem is that when you put a project on hold and wait a few years down the line, your costs are going to double,” Berns said.
Aside from the runway construction, the Marines have also supported the local community through various projects. “The Marines, in their off time, have helped with a lot of community projects," said Rick Berns, mayor of Old Harbor. "This includes gardening, small construction projects, and participation in our community events."

Expeditionary training

In addition to benefiting the community, the Marines have been able to tap into their expeditionary roots by training in this austere environment.

"This is no different than what they would be doing if they were deployed overseas,” said Lt. Col. Vincent C. Dawson, commanding officer of MWSS-473. “We've had construction of a forward operating base, construction of an airfield and vertical construction of support facilities. We have the whole gamut of Marine Wing Support Squadron military occupational specialties working out here. This is training we can't get when we go to drill two or three days a month.”

However, the remoteness of the training site brings its own set of challenges. 

“The location is probably the biggest challenge of the training,” Said Chief Warrant Officer 2 John W. Peskuski, project officer, IRT Old Harbor. “Moving equipment and personnel to this location is difficult because you have to come in by plane or by barge. The weather has hindered some of those movements.”

Despite logistical setbacks, the Marines are still able to complete quality training.

“For every single Reservist coming to this annual training, they are doing training 10 to 12 hours a day in their military occupational specialty,” Geary said. “If they are operating heavy equipment, they are getting a lot of stick time on different kinds of gear. If they are mechanics, they are doing maintenance work every single day.”

For many of the Reserve Marines, this is critical training time they might not receive back at their home training centers.

“This has been a great experience,” said Pfc. Kade A. Harner, a motor vehicle operator with Detachment B, MWSS-473. “I've had a chance to run equipment that I've never had hands on experience with.”

Even for more experienced equipment operators, the value of quality training time is the biggest draw.

“It's good training because a lot of times as Reservists, we don't get a lot of hands on time with the equipment,” Sgt. Brian S. Warner, an engineer equipment operator with Det. B, MWSS-472. “For operators it is a really good opportunity for them to run equipment nonstop.”

Although the Marines have made a tremendous amount of progress this year, there is still plenty of work to be done.

“To complete this project, we really need to get the drilling and blasting done,” Cynthia Berns said. “To do this, ideally, we need to maintain the support of the IRT program and get the Marines who are familiar with the project to participate in it.”

With a project the scope of IRT Old Harbor, the Marines have a unique opportunity to meet their annual training requirements while responding to a key infrastructure need in a small American community.

“This project is not only helping to build our infrastructure, but it is really helping to sustain our community and our culture,” Cynthia Berns said. “There are a lot of villages in Alaska that are dying. People are moving to the cities and losing the connection with their home. We are really grateful for all of the support from the IRT program and the Marines. Without them, we would not be moving forward.”


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