Story by MCC Jacquelyn Childs, FIRST Naval Construction Regiment
GALLUP, New Mexico – Dozens of Seabees and Sailors have cycled through the small town of Gallup, New Mexico, this summer for a special project that few people know about, but that has a large impact on the surrounding community. Designated as the ‘Most Patriotic Small Town in America,’ every year the convivial community of Gallup hosts service members who work with the Southwest Indian Foundation (SWIF) to construct homes for low-income Native American families as part of an Innovative Readiness Training (IRT) project.
This year, Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 18 was the leading unit who provided oversight of the project where Seabees from several different commands came together to work as a team on the SWIF project. With the exception of a handful of duration staff who stayed in Gallup the whole summer, most came through in nine separate two-week waves allowing many different Seabees, most of them reservists, the opportunity to gain much needed hands-on training. The first two-week group arrived April 15 and the last is scheduled to leave Aug. 16, closing out the IRT project for this year.
According to William McCarthy, the chief executive officer at SWIF, this project started because the right person noticed an opportunity to take the product of an already existing training requirement and pass it on to fill a need in the community. Part of the old curriculum at the Air Force Academy had cadets building an entire house from beginning to end before destroying it for the next class to come through. Instead of destroying the home, the training was tailored to create an actual home that would ultimately be delivered to homeless Native American families. That was more than 20 years ago now and the project has only continued to grow.
“They say ‘it is better to give than to receive’ and that’s what the military is doing here,” said McCarthy during a ceremony in Gallup Aug. 8. “You are giving of yourself, you are sacrificing where our missions coalesce. You’re getting trained and we get a bi-product of providing a home for a homeless family. And that’s a win-win situation, it’s a beautiful thing.”
The ceremony was held to celebrate another successful year at the SWIF IRT project and to educate anyone new to the project on the background and benefits of the ongoing partnership. Senior leadership from NMCB-18 and the command they report to, the First Naval Construction Regiment (NCR), were able to attend the ceremony before visiting the SWIF warehouse and talking to Seabees actually working on the houses where most of the action happens.
“Here we’re allowing personnel in the naval construction force from different commands to come and participate in construction of these homes for Navajo veterans and Navajo families,” said Chief Engineering Aide Amber Sigler, assigned to NMCB-18 who remained on site the whole summer as the officer in charge of the project. “By participating in that construction, they’re receiving rating training and sometimes cross-rate training and directly increasing their knowledge and skills which should benefit the battalions and the other commands. The really neat part is that we’re supporting the community too.”
According to SWIF officials, the houses are almost completely constructed in the warehouse in different phases before being transported on the back of a flatbed trailer in two pieces to the site on the Navajo Reservation where the family will live. The goal of the project this year was to give Seabees the opportunity to work on as many of the different phases as possible during their brief time in Gallup in order to gain the greatest experience.
“I really think with the Seabees, when you go overseas, you’re just trying to quickly get things done,” said Builder 2nd Class Cassandra Begay, assigned to NMCB-18 who was the safety supervisor for the duration of the project. “Here there’s no time-crunch, there’s expectations but it’s more the quality of work that we have to put out in order for these homes to travel out on the back of a trailer and survive the roads that are out there. Some people live several miles off the main highway on a dirt road, so the house has to stay together while it’s on the move.”
Because training and hands-on experience can be a challenge for Navy reservists, 1-NCR and NMCB-18 leadership were especially grateful for the opportunity to participate in this particular project where the Seabees had the chance to focus on the quality of the product and learn in a safe environment. According to Capt. Darryl Long, commodore of 1-NCR, the reserve naval construction force (NCF) has seen some degradation in hands-on experience over recent years. He said at one point in time, between 60-70% of the reserve NCF were working in the civilian construction field with an average age of 38-39. But over the last several years, the average age has dropped to 32-33 with only about 30-33% working in a civilian construction trade, making IRT projects like this one essential for mission readiness.
“That’s what this program has provided for our reserve force so that we are better prepared when called to go forward again,” Long said during the ceremony in Gallup. “A lot of what we’re doing here, we’ve done in Iraq, we’ve done in Afghanistan, we’re doing on the islands for a better community. But to do it right here at home for our own nation is really where it plays an even greater benefit for us. We’re not getting shot at, and we’re gaining those skills while giving back to the community and experiencing some of their culture.”
The Seabees who worked on the project agreed that the training is extremely beneficial, and in the case of Construction Electrician 3rd Class Otis Talley from NMCB-3, they have actually experienced the benefits of the hands-on training firsthand. Talley got to participate in the project for a couple weeks last year and volunteered to return for another two-week cycle because he had such a great experience.
“When I came last time, it was really my first hands-on in my rate and it helped me a lot when it came to deployment because it seemed we had nothing but electrical,” Talley explained. “I got thrown into lead CE and that was a challenge. So, I just referenced what I did here and converted it to commercial. It helped a lot.”
Talley also claimed the hands-on training helped as he was studying for his third-class petty officer exam last year and he ended up scoring in the 92nd percentile, ultimately advancing off that exam. He’s hoping this second time around will help him as he begins studying for the construction electrician second class exam.
Of course, as Long stated, the benefits of this particular IRT project go beyond the training and hands-on experience. Having the opportunity to give back to a community that desperately needs help while experiencing some of their rich culture in person can be a priceless opportunity, especially for people like Begay who expressed her gratitude to have the opportunity to give back to her own people.
“It was nice to be offered the opportunity to come back to what we call our ‘Motherland’ to be able to do a project like this,” said Begay who is a member of the Navajo Tribe and who’s family lives a short distance away in Little Rock, New Mexico. “It’s also a great honor to have my leadership have that faith in me to be able to carry on a large position with this project.”
Begay grew up in similar circumstances to many of the families that the SWIF project is assisting, so the experience hit home for her. Although she said she was skeptical at first and wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, remaining on the project through the whole summer changed her perspective a little and there were some extremely emotional times for her of which she was grateful to have been a part.
“In the beginning you don’t have that big idea of what an IRT is,” she explained. “You’re unaware of the existence of the program. You don’t know that there’s actually a foundation that’s trying to help the Navajos with these homes and stuff. It’s very touching, especially with the way I grew up. I know the struggles of not having running water and electricity, having to travel a great distance to do laundry or buy groceries. I lived that life, so to know that there is someone trying to help those that are in need is very touching. It can be emotional at times.”
According to Sigler, the Seabees’ involvement with the local community went above and beyond the construction of the homes as most of them volunteered during their time off at a long list of different events and ceremonies over the course of the summer. They went to races designed to increase health and wellness in the community, volunteered at the Veteran’s Day parade and at the local food bank and even assisted in the burial service of a Navajo Code-Talker, providing most of the project’s participants similar emotional experiences to Begay’s.
After touring the warehouse and learning more about the overall construction of the houses, the leaders who attended the ceremony in Gallup had the opportunity to conduct a site visit to a recently delivered home on the Navajo Reservation in Oak Springs, Arizona, where they could see why the Seabees working on the project got emotional at times. Although the newly constructed house is a much-needed blessing for the family who will be moving into it soon, it sits on a plot of land that doesn’t have electricity or running water, a common issue on the reservation.
“They have dire needs…,” said Gallup Mayor Jackie McKinney during the ceremony. “To this day, I know there are still houses out there that don’t have any running water and still have no electricity. So, we’ve come a long way, but we have a long way to go. So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for bringing your team to Gallup and helping our people,” he expressed his gratitude to the leaders in attendance.
During their visit, the leadership discussed many ways they might increase training opportunities in the future years when they’re given the chance to participate in the SWIF IRT project again. With the possibility of bringing more electricians out as well as the well-digging teams and equipment, the chances to help the low-income families get access to things most Americans take for granted like electricity and water, while increasing training opportunities for the Seabees appear to be endless.
The IRT program is a Department of Defense program which originated in the early 90s specifically to increase training opportunities for military and while assisting community personnel or organizations just like the partnership in Gallup. Some of the commands who participated in the SWIF IRT project this year were NMCB-18, NMCB-3, NMCB-5, and Construction Battalion Maintenance Unit 303.