By 1st Lt. Joe Trovato, Wisconsin National Guard
PARK FALLS, WI (ANG) - Soldiers from the Ashland, Wis.-based 829th Engineer Company got real-world military occupation specialty training while also helping the U.S. Forest Service this fall.
The engineer company, which trains for construction and infrastructure improvement missions at home and abroad, lent a helping hand to the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest near Ashland, Wis. Over the course of the fall, the unit constructed a six-mile hiking path using a skid steer and crushed granite. Approximately 120 Soldiers who took part also replaced boards along a three-mile boardwalk near the visitor center and built handicap-accessible stairs at a ranger station in Park Falls, Wis.
A 35-Soldier detachment based in Richland Center, Wis., constructed bridge sections for use throughout the national forest, while 45 Soldiers at the Chippewa Falls, Wis., armory constructed sign boards that were installed at various locations in the forest.
The projects spanned multiple drill weekends, but the work gave the Soldiers of the 829th Engineer Company a hands-on training experience that also benefited the greater public.
"By assisting the community, I am able to provide my Soldiers high quality training with no construction material cost to the Wisconsin Army National Guard," explained Capt. Kyle Gruber, the unit's commander.
Working alongside civilian electricians, plumbers, carpenters, and masons exposed his Soldiers to a higher level of expertise as well.
"My Soldiers learn far more than they would completing the [public works] projects on a military installation," Gruber said.
The U.S. Forest Service was more than happy to have the help and to provide the National Guard with a valuable training opportunity.
"It's one of those things that's pretty cool, because it uses resources that the forest can provide in the way of materials and resources and that the National Guard can supply in the way of personnel in order to do work for the good of the public," said Jason Maloney, the director of the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center. "It also provides necessary training to keep a National Guard unit in our state combat ready.
"It's a darned economical use of public funds through cooperation, and at the same time it improves our national defense," he added. "It's just like a diamond. Any way you want to turn it, it's a beautiful thing, because you're using resources very wisely. It's a win-win for both organizations - the National Guard and the national forest."
The visitor center director, who presides over a 37,000 square-foot facility that houses several state and federal agencies, expressed optimism that the National Guard and the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest can work together again in the future.
"I think this is just the beginning," he said. "There is much cooperation that we'll be able to do between our organizations."
The engineer company already has several other community-based projects in the works, including more trail construction, a shooting range complex for a local sheriff's department and a roofing and renovation project at a U.S. Forest Service ranger station.
While completing community projects benefit the state's residents, Gruber and the rest of the 829th Engineer Company relish the opportunities.
"This program is truly a win-win for both the Wisconsin Army National Guard and the local communities," he said. "Taxpayers are getting the best bang for their buck as they pay once and get twice the product. For the company first sergeant and me, it is all about getting back to fundamental military occupation specialty skills and team building."