By Vince Little
WIESBADEN, Germany - After a swift training stint and buildup this summer, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District's Forward Engineer Support Team-Advanced is on the move again.
The 16-member unit recently left for a six-month deployment to Amman, Jordan, where it's part of a special U.S. task force set up to build the nation's capabilities and help provide aid for thousands of refugees pouring in from neighboring Syria, which remains locked in a bloody civil war that's claimed more than 100,000 lives. The FEST-A is made up of five volunteers and three Soldiers from Europe District. It's augmented by another three service members and five civilians who joined from other organizations.
The team is comprised mostly of civil, electrical, mechanical and environmental engineers. It relies on individuals with solid project management, base camp development and other skill sets. The unit was stood up five years ago to provide technical engineer support and conduct consequence management and stability operations in support of military and civilian agencies, according to its mission statement.
From July 22 to Aug. 6, the group engaged in a series of training events around Wiesbaden to get certified for the deployment, said Capt. Shai-Lin Ynacay, the Europe District FEST-A commander and a project engineer in the Ramstein Resident Office.
"They grew together and became a cohesive team," she said prior to the unit's Aug. 31 departure from Frankfurt. "They were -- for the most part -- strangers, and this was their opportunity to understand and learn how to operate the equipment the FEST uses and to train in a field environment using the skills they learned."
Ynacay said the unit practiced base camp development and planning that first week. The second week began with a two-day field-training exercise as members got their hands on field force engineering equipment, including the Automated Route Reconnaissance Kit, Tele-engineering Communications Equipment-Deployable, It-Knows-Everything with Geospatial Assessment Tool for Engineering Reachback, and IRIS computer systems.
"There are several pieces of equipment they use to help them in their engineering assessments," she added. "Some of them had experience in using the equipment, but this gave them the opportunity to go over in more detail how to use the equipment and ask questions with the [subject-matter experts] available."
A mission-rehearsal exercise unfolded over the next three days in a secluded, austere training area, where the FEST-A acted as if it was deployed to a remote region, Ynacay said.
"We confronted issues that we can expect to confront in a real-life mission," she said. "We set up our office, our equipment and received the [operations order] from higher. Once the missions were received and we conducted map recons and rehearsals, the team assigned to the particular mission by me would assess the site using the appropriate equipment."
After briefing Col. Peter Helmlinger, the Europe District commander, on its engineering assessments, the team took part in theater-specific individual training during the final three days in early August.
Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Guida of the 249th Engineer Battalion at Fort Belvoir, Va., linked up with Europe District's FEST-A in July as a power generation and electrical distribution specialist. He'll perform electrical and communication infrastructure assessments and inspections throughout the deployment.
The training-and-buildup cycle gave unit members the insight and knowledge on equipment use and adequately prepared them for this tasking, he said.
"It was beneficial and important for the team," added Guida, who served in Afghanistan three years ago and has deployed several times across the U.S. for disaster relief. "We came together from all corners of the world to join up. We've only known each other for a very short time, but we quickly became a cohesive unit. And we're ready for the mission."
A volunteer from USACE headquarters said he had to scramble a bit to join the team but welcomed the opportunity to make his first deployment with the corps. Matthew Parks, a senior planner for the Strategy and Integration Office in Washington, heard about the job July 11 and quickly came to Germany for the FEST-A's training session. When that ended, he returned to the U.S. for three weeks but made it back to Europe a few days before the unit left.
He'll work as a hydrogeologist during the six-month assignment.
"We find the water," he said. "It's an interesting position that will enhance my ability to provide technical support and expertise. … It's a chance for me to use my technical background in an operational setting.
"It's all been very interesting, informative and a great learning experience. The training helped me prepare for tackling this mission. … [and] our team quickly molded into an integrated unit that will be able to accomplish it."
Europe District's eight-person FEST-A was organized in 2008. Since then, it's deployed to Afghanistan and participated in exercises in Uganda, Germany, Niger, Alaska, Italy and California.