SAVANNAH, Ga. – As 2014 departs, so will 12 members of the 542nd Forward Engineering Support Team – Advanced (FEST-A), who deploy to Kuwait in January for more than six months to provide specialized technical engineering support for the Central Command area of responsibility.
The team will replace the Mobile District’s FEST-A, currently deployed to the region, to conduct site assessments and base camp designs for potential future coalition operations in the CENTCOM AOR, said Maj. Jason Winkelmann, FEST-A officer in charge.
Since mid-September, the small, niche team cemented their technical proficiency during collective training exercises held at Hunter Army Airfield and Fort Stewart, both in Georgia, and individual online training on digital graphics programs such as AutoCAD, at district headquarters in Savannah.
Training educated members on new equipment intended to furnish FEST-A members with additional resources in the field. The unit also partners with a reach-back operations center located in Vicksburg, Mississippi. The center provides reach-back capability, or a virtual link, to subject-matter experts and unusual technologies, said Marc Dumas, Field Force Engineer program manager.
“The FEST-A has access to tools not typically found at the district level,” said Dumas. “Instruments such as the Infrastructure Reconnaissance Information System or our tele-engineering kits, which allow them to communicate via video teleconference, give the team the ability to acquire and submit data anywhere in the world in a classified or unclassified manner,” he said.
Dumas said the cutting-edge technology is advantageous, but also emphasized that it’s critical the team understands how to function as a working cohesive organization.
“An individual deploying from a district is filling a specific need,” he said. “When deployed as a team, you have individual tasks but also a lot of collective tasks that everyone needs to execute.”
During their training the team overcame the challenges during months of synchronizing schedules and expanding the team. Winkelmann said the merging of expertise, adding skill-sets and carrying positive attitudes led to constructing a strong, competent team.
New Arrivals and Departures
During the bustling final four months of the year, pre-deployment preparations have been interlaced among new family arrivals, holiday breaks and the addition of nine new team members. The new members, from various districts, will add skill-sets unavailable to the SAM FEST-A. Five of these members will form a dam assessment team supplying an ancillary support leg to the core team.
Many of the members have previously deployed as uniformed service members or FEST-A members.
“This is my fifth deployment overall, but my first as a father and husband,” said Winkelmann.
Mike Kessler, new member from the St. Louis District, said he has deployed with the Corps three times during his seven-year tenure, but never as a member of a FEST-A.
“I think the FEST missions are unique,” he said. “We’ll have the chance to travel. We’ll drop our bags in one area but we never know where we’re going to go.”
Kessler said his departure isn’t a huge adjustment for his family.
“I’ve done this enough times that it’s not a big deal for my family,” he said. “My father worries the most because he watches a lot of news, but I’m a man of faith and whatever happens is going to happen.”
Jeremy Miller, FEST-A civil engineer, has the most experience deploying as a 542nd FEST-A member during two deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.
“The biggest challenge is picking up where the previous team left off,” Miller said. “We have to learn new procedures, get integrated into the work schedule, understand our duties, and get comfortable working as a team.”
Miller said he’s looking forward to another deployment but will miss his 11-year old dog that he plans to leave with family.
“My dog has lived through deployments before, but when I return from anywhere his level of excitement is the same,” he says. “I can go out and check the mail or be gone for six months and it’s the same reaction.”
Preparing to Execute the Mission
The team traveled to the Continental United States Replacement Center at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, Dec. 7-12 to receive their deployment gear and equipment, and receive final validations on administrative and medical paperwork, said Winkelmann.
While deployed, Winkelmann said his goal is to make a positive impression of USACE through top-notch technical support. He also has high ambitions to develop individuals professionally through challenging, complex problems that require teamwork and expanded learning, he said.
“I hope to learn how to utilize each of the skill sets on the team,” he said. “Everyone on the team has the right attitude and wants to be here. The camaraderie we’ve built through our previous training events, the FEST-specific skills we’ve learned and the expert knowledge that each individual brings to the team ensures we’ll be successful.”
The diverse coalition is comprised of eight Savannah District members and four members from outside districts. A sister unit, Alaska’s 62nd FEST-A, deployed to Kuwait since September, will provide additional knowledge of the area and operations to facilitate the team’s transition in theater, said Winkelmann.