OLD HARBOR, Alaska -- Marines from units across Marine Forces Reserve participated in Innovative Readiness Training Old Harbor, Alaska, April 3 – August 8, 2017.
A light drizzle continued to fall. The sky was overcast. A fog layer rolled in that would prevent aircraft from landing or taking off. The sound of small, steady waves could be heard gently crashing against the shore. The sound of excavators, bulldozers, scrapers, and other heavy equipment rumbled in the background of the small village. The sun broke through and the fog lifted revealing a truly breathtaking scene of snowcapped mountains and lush green hills. This was Old Harbor, Alaska.
The small Alaskan village, located on Kodiak Island, was home to a runway extension project that fell under the Department of Defense’s Innovative Readiness Training program. The IRT program began in 1992 when the Department of Defense searched for innovative programs to serve American communities in need and provide realistic military training benefits. The runway extension in Old Harbor was one such project.
Marine Air Group 41, 4th Marine Aircraft Wing, Marine Forces Reserve was the IRT Old Harbor project lead and managed multiple units from different branches of military service in executing the project. Marine Wing Support Squadron 471, Marine Wing Support Squadron 472, Marine Wing Support Squadron 473, Marine Air Control Group 48, US Army 907 Engineer Battalion, 407 Engineer Battalion, Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 14 Seabees, Arizona National Guard, Montana National Guard, Guam Air National Guard were all involved in support of this expansion under MAG-41’s lead. The project saw nearly 2,000 Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines through the camp this rural, picturesque part of Alaska.
Preserving a Culture
The primary mission of the IRT Old Harbor was to extend the current runway from 2,700 feet to 4,700 feet to help facilitate economic development. This year marked the fifth year Reserve Marines participated in this IRT.
“The concept of the project is to expand the runway to develop the economic community,” said Rick Berns, mayor of Old Harbor. “We are a fisheries-based community, and we want to develop a processor in the community instead of sending all our fish products out to other locations. We can develop it right here locally and by doing so the community expands jobs for the locals. Part of our plan on this whole thing is to develop our shipping and transportation and that’s where the airport expansion comes into play so we can get larger aircraft to move product out of here.”
While the goal of the project was about economic development, the goal of the community was about so much more. This annual project is instrumental to the survival of the community and culture as urban outmigration is on the rise.
“We are working very hard to develop a healthy community with a strong economy and the Old Harbor Airport Safety and Extension Project is imperative for us to be successful,” said Cynthia Berns, the vice president of administration and external affairs for the Old Harbor Native Corporation. “We are losing many of our rural villages throughout Alaska due to the high rural to urban outmigration. We are working diligently so that we have a sustainable community where families can make a decent living and raise their children close to their cultural roots and subsistence lifestyle. This project will prove to be very beneficial to our community and the State of Alaska by providing a safer and improved airfield and the infrastructure required for economic development. We greatly appreciate your support as it is vital for the safety, economic growth, and sustainability of our community.”
The Marine Corps Reserve is one of the most geographically-dispersed commands in the Marine Corps. Unlike the Active Component, Marine Forces Reserve has units in 160 different locations throughout the U.S. and its territories. In many cases, reserve Marines grew up in the towns where they now serve part time, so providing value to communities is an important part of the Marine Corps Reserve mission.
Mission Essential Joint Training
But at the end of the day, reserve Marines are warfighters, and they must be able to fight our respond to crises when our nation asks them to. Readiness is crucial, and reserve Marines must meet the same, unrelenting standards as their active duty brothers and sisters, but with a fraction of the time available to train. So they must maximize the training time they have available. For their part, projects like the runway extension in Old Harbor and other projects under the IRT program allow them to do just that.
“The project is just larger scale, you get a lot more equipment time, and a lot of stick time,” said Senior Airman Samuel Rexer, pavement and construction journeyman with 354th support squadron. “It’s been a good experience.”
The austere and remote nature of Old Harbor was an added training benefit that is rarely duplicated in a typical annual training cycle. This year was the largest and most productive year to date with nearly 2,000 service members helping to accomplish the mission.
“We got roughly 500 feet of usable runway done this year and we have done multiple blasts to create more rock,” said Staff Sgt. Randy Graftema, IRT Old Harbor project coordinator. “In some spots we have raised the ground 80 feet, we have had to divert streams and completely blast rock.”
Due to the scale and size of the project, service members were able to train on a wide variety of mission essential tasks which include establishing and operating a forward operating base, conducting tactical water and hygiene services, conducting tactical electrical supply, conducting horizontal and vertical construction, conducting engineering and transportation operations, blasting and many more. These functions are essential on the modern day battlefield.
“This year we have more equipment than any other year. We brought out more equipment from owning units and rented more equipment this year so we are a lot bigger operation this year,” said Graftema. “We rented two 470 excavators, a D10 dozer and a D9 dozer, two 20 ton dump trucks and three compactor vibrators.”
This year a total of over 100,000 cubic yards of rock were moved. To put that in perspective, a 100,000-cubic yard tank would hold over 20 million gallons of water.
The Arizona National Guard added an extra capability this year by bringing in blasting operations. Blasting was an integral part of this year’s operations and without the addition, the project would have stalled as there would have been no rock to move to the runway. The IRT Old Harbor project helped the Arizona National Guard gain proficiency and experience by being able to perform many more blasts than in a typical year.
“Usually back home we do one production blast a year, out here we have done eight production blasts,” said U.S. Army 1st Lt. Kevin Sartor, platoon commander with the 259th engineer platoon. “It’s been pretty amazing. Just to see the camaraderie. I mean there are some commonalities between the different branches, definitely differences. But you know it gets down to crushing rock and moving earth. Seeing how we work together to accomplish the mission I think for me is the most interesting part.”
Marines must be ready to fight tonight. A critical component of that readiness is the ability to integrate seamlessly not only with the active components of our respective branches of service, but also with one another. This project created an opportunity for Marines to train alongside Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Coast Guardsmen so that when the time comes to respond to our nation’s crises, we are a ready team.
"We are a joint force out here. Working with the other branches has been a really good experience. Everybody is working together really well,” said Graftema. “We work under the aspect of one, team one fight.”