KEY WEST, Fla. – Builder 1st Class David Debolin, a 14-year Sailor assigned to Construction Battalion Maintenance Unit (CBMU) 202 det. Jacksonville, had never been on a ship.
Usually responsible for maintenance around Naval Air Station (NAS) Jacksonville and public works, CBMU 202 Sailors were a little out of their element when they embarked the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7) to provide relief in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma as part of a disaster relief team (DRT), Sept. 8.
“None of us had been on a ship before,” Debolin said. “We took advantage of the opportunity to conduct training and see what fleet rates do at sea. It was really interesting to see a new side of the Navy, especially after 14 years.”
CBMU 202 was not alone in the first shipboard experience for more than 30 Seabees. Members of Explosive Ordnance Disposal Expeditionary Support Unit (EODESU) 2 and Amphibious Construction Battalion (ACB) 2 joined them aboard Iwo Jima.
Builder 2nd Class Amanda Jarbo, assigned to EODESU 2, enjoyed experiencing something new.
“It was pretty different, but it was awesome learning about the fleet rates we don’t see every day,” Jarbo said. “It was cool to observe their daily routines. The ship is a 24-hour machine, and it was great to see how they work together to get the mission done.”
The Seabees toured the pilothouse, engine rooms and manned the helm during the transit, according to Lt. j.g. Anthony Holl, a civil engineering corps officer assigned to ACB 2.
Iwo Jima steamed south between Hurricanes Irma and Jose, experiencing heavy seas along the journey and eventually arriving off the coast of the Florida Keys with the amphibious transport dock ship USS New York (LPD 21) and the guided-missile cruiser USS San Jacinto (CG 56).
In first of its kind tasking for an explosive ordnance disposal group (EODGRU) commander, Capt. Josh Jackson, the EODGRU 2 commander, served as the maritime command element (MCE) and lead Sailors ashore, joined by Marines assigned to the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit. The Sailors and Marines arrived at NAS Key West by way of Navy MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopters, Marine CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters and landing craft utilities from Amphibious Craft Unit (ACU) 2.
After being tasked to support the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the aftermath of Irma, the forces officially became Combined Task Force (CTF) 181.
Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc after making landfall in the Florida Keys, Sept. 10, ripping trees from the ground with root systems intact, cutting power to the islands and scattering debris.
Seabee units are adaptive to mission requirements, scalable, agile and able to deliver expeditionary engineering and construction whenever and wherever required. They provide responsive military support for disaster preparation and recovery, including furnishing assistance to civilian agencies.
The three units, attached to the CTF 181 MCE, were equipped with an array of medium terrain vehicle replacements (MTVR), light service support vehicles (LSSV), high mobility military vehicles (HMMV), forklifts, bulldozers, dump trucks, chain saws and de-watering pumps. Self-sustaining, they built generator-powered camps to house more than 100 Sailors in the field of NAS Key West for several nights.
“I am always in awe of the capability and work ethic they bring to the table,” said Chief Information Systems Technician, assigned to EODESU 2. “I have always known how hard-working they are, but I was truly captivated by their can-do attitude and ability to work efficiently when so many people were relying on them.”
Once camps were established, the Seabees channeled their storied 75-year history and set out to work, clearing miles of roads and runways, removing more than 35 tons of debris and repairing vehicles and generators on NAS Key West and throughout Monroe County.
“It’s a great gift to be able to work with Seabees,” Holl said. “We come from a rich heritage and are instilled with the idea that we can do things that are incredibly difficult, and sometimes things that seem impossible, in any environment. Knowing that Seabees in WWII, Korea and Vietnam did things like that is motivating. We stand on the shoulders of the people that have come before us. We always hope to live up to the proud memory of past Seabees.”
For 75 years, Seabees have been protecting the nation and serving with pride and outstanding dedication. The men and women of the Seabees have been engaged globally in every theater, constructing bases, building airfields, roads, bridges and other support facilities.
After turning over the task of long-term recovery to FEMA and the Florida National Guard, CTF 181 wrapped up their initial recovery efforts.
The Seabees packed up their gear from NAS Key West and returned to sea, Sept. 17.
“We could not have accomplished the mission without the array of skills and dedication of each Seabee,” said Lt. Chris Johnson, operations officer of CTF 181 MCE. “We were collectively able to help a lot of people in need, and that was the greatest feeling.”