By Lt. Cmdr. Leia Guccione, USNR, NMCB 17 Public Affairs
Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 17, known as the Desert Battalion, decommissioned Sept. 28, Fort Carson, Colo., after seven decades of service. The decommissioning of NMCB 17 marked the final Naval Construction Force (NCF) decommissioning for the fiscal year.
The currents of transition that are running through the NCF were specifically felt by NMCB 17 as the battalion came together to perform this final ceremony. Guest speaker, Rear Adm. Paula Brown, deputy commander, Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC), and Deputy Chief of Civil Engineers told the Seabees of NMCB 17 that while our NCF is facing many changes and uncertainty, “we are [also] facing new opportunities.”
Brown recounted that the NCF has seen similar fluctuations before, transitioning from a force of more than 250,000 Seabees during World War II, to one of only 3,300 Seabees in the late 40s before the Korean Conflict and Vietnam War. It was in 1945 that NMCB 17 was decommissioned for the first time, only to be recommissioned as a reserve battalion in 1962 in support of the Vietnam War. Since then, the battalion has supported Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
Today’s NCF stands at just over 6,500 Seabees, combined active and reserve. While NMCB 17 has been decommissioned, the remaining eight active detachments will be reassigned to other battalions.
“Change is not the enemy; but is the catalyst for continued improvement,” Brown said, addressing the Seabees. “The ability to rapidly grow to satisfy urgent needs, coupled with the ability to reduce our size and structure when demand is low or fiscal constraints limit our use, is critical to our continued success. It takes a combined effort of all of our active and reserve forces to make this effort successful.
“For more than a decade as our Nation has been at war, Seabees continue to construct schools, clinics, and water wells to help build relationships and forge alliances around the world,” Brown continued. “We don’t just build facilities and roads; we build partnerships, lasting legacies, solutions and linkages to improve people’s lives. Those partnerships are the basis for strong regional security and will help to prevent the next war from even starting.”
In April of this year, NMCB 17 completed a Field Training Exercise (FTX) at Fort Hunter Liggett, Calif. This particular FTX was the first to be completed by a non-mobilizing battalion in nearly a decade. With U.S. forces withdrawing from Afghanistan, the need to mobilize reserve construction forces is rapidly dwindling. Active and reserve components alike are working to transition to a period of sustainment, where individual Sailor skill sets, and unit-level capabilities must be developed and maintained in a training environment, in the absence of real world tasking.
The unit, which has been station in Fort Carson since 1993, has a history of leveraging the strong Army and Air Force presence in the Colorado Springs area, holding annual joint airlift exercises with the U.S. Air Force Reserve at Peterson Air Force Base. Patriot Express, as the exercise was called, took place for five years, affording both branches a unique opportunity for joint service cross-training outside of a mobilization—a rare opportunity for reservists.
“My final order is to carry the pride and tradition of NMCB 17 to your new battalions,” said NMCB 17 Commanding Officer Cmdr. Michael Read during his final remarks.
While the decommissioning of NMCB 17 marks the end of a challenging year for the NCF, the Seabees left the ceremony in good spirits, ready for new challenges at new commands, exhibiting the legendary “Can Do” attitude for which the Seabees throughout history and across the world are known.
NMCB 17 was originally commissioned August 9, 1942, in support of World War II. From 1942 to 1945, NMCB 17 was a significant part of building runways in Argentia, Newfoundland, as well as supporting the North African invasion. The unit built the U.S. bases and infrastructure on Saipan and Okinawa, and built battalion aid stations and critical facilities on various small Pacific islands until the Japanese surrendered. NMCB 17’s first deactivation came at the end of World War II just after Thanksgiving Day in 1945.
In 1962, NMCB 17 was recommissioned as a reserve battalion with headquarters in Port Hueneme, Calif. The battalion was part of the larger force structure increases to amass troops for Vietnam.
In 1990, NMCB 17 mobilized in support of Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. As part of broader Naval Reserve Force reorganization, NMCB 17 relocated to Fort Carson in 1993, and became known as the “Desert Battalion.”
Air Det members of NMCB 17 deployed with NMCB 7 to Iraq in early 2005 where they completed significant road and infrastructure projects in support of the battle of Fallujah and the vital network to move troops.
The unit’s final mobilization was in 2008, to Al Anbar province and then to Afghanistan to meet changing mission requirements.