Lt. Eric Johnson (right) explains construction standards to Afghan contractors during concrete placement of a septic tank. Photo by BU1 LeeAnn Schott
Life has many twists and turns. Not all bad, not all good, just relative to our desires and expectations.
Our respective deviation off course started in fall 2008, when Lt. Kevin Burnett ’07, USN, was medically waived from Nuclear Power School and I was medically waived from flight school by the Naval Aerospace Medical Institute. I did not know Kevin all that well at the Academy, despite the fact we were both mechanical engineering majors. He was in 17th Company, I was in 16th Company, and we played several games of intramural basketball against each other.
Our paths did not truly merge until Civil Engineer Corps Officer School in May 2009 when both of us had been successfully re-designated to become part of the Civil Engineer Corps (CEC). The CEC community is not well known at the Academy because only a few have the opportunity to commission directly into this small, tight-knit community of engineers and architects.
Throughout summer 2009, Kevin and I ended up becoming great friends and went our separate ways as he headed to Gulfport, MS, to enjoy the birth of his first child, Jaxson, while I headed up north to Whidbey Island, WA. We stayed in touch every few months via email after Kevin went on an 11-month deployment to Okinawa and Thailand for humanitarian aide missions for the Pacific Fleet. Then we swapped gears, I went to a Seabee battalion in Port Hueneme, CA, and Kevin departed for Quantico, VA, to work at the Resident Officer in Charge of Construction managing multiple contracts.
While I was returning from a seven-month deployment to Spain and Israel late summer 2012, I received a call from Kevin about our follow-on orders. We both had volunteered for Global War on Terror Support Assignment to Afghanistan. After catching up for several minutes, talking about Jaxson and his newborn daughter, River, we concluded, based on our order numbers, we were headed to the same Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Ghazni, Afghanistan. We were excited to be able to spend a nine-month deployment together because we are normally the only officer on our details with the Seabees; it was very welcomed to be around a fellow junior officer. To get to Afghanistan we would have to survive four months of Army training, from Fort Huachuca, AZ, to Camp Atterbury, IN. For those who have not had the opportunity to serve with the Army, let’s just say those four months were Navy appreciation training. With our training complete, it was now time to make the trip across the ‘pond’ to the landlocked country of Afghanistan.
Our purpose on the PRT was to serve as the engineering officers, which entailed construction management, vehicle maintenance operations and engineering support to the battle space commanders, something Kevin and I were both well prepared for based on our previous tours. We started off with three projects, not a heavy load by normal stateside construction management standards working with Naval Facilities and Engineering Command. However, we quickly became the local experts for all commands in the Area of Operations which do not deploy with engineering assets, thus becoming heavily relied upon to provide our technical opinion and conduct quality assurance inspections for Civil Affairs, Polish and several Advisory Teams’ projects. Conducting more than 60 outside-the-wire missions with our talented BU1 LeeAnn Schott and our agricultural specialist Sgt. Nathan Fridlund, we ensured the Afghan contractors utilized the appropriate construction standards in order for the projects to be beneficial to the local populace for years to come. As for the vehicle maintenance side of the house, our 20 Mine Resistance Ambushed Protected “Cougars” constantly took a beating in this harsh operating environment and elevated mission tempo. Our three construction mechanics were the best and most professional bunch we could have hoped for, spending a total of seven months of training prior to our deployment and constantly working their tails off to keep the Cougars in peak operating condition. Our Seabees “can-do” attitude proved to be contagious for our command, both a blessing and curse, because now we were the go-to department to handle obscure tasks, a designation in which we took great pride.
It is a different world than either of us expected when we left the shores of the Severn several years ago, but we both agree that the change of course has made all the difference in our lives.
The opportunities we have had to lead Seabees to austere and challenging environments, being responsible for construction projects as lieutenants junior grade, closing down the long and illustrious legacy of the PRTs and being a part of the lasting history that many Naval Academy alumni have made in Afghanistan has been rewarding.
Despite certain challenges and difficulties, the opportunity to serve our country and lead Soldiers, Seabees, and other Sailors has been a great sense of pride for Kevin and me. The best part about it was to create these memories with a fellow friend, brother and Naval Academy alumnus. The world may be a big place, but representing the Navy Blue and Gold with a brother in arms definitely has made it a lot smaller.
(Reprinted with permission from USNA’s Nov-Dec 2013 Shipmate magazine.)