New Beginnings: 78th Civil Engineer Squadron provides infrastructure in theaters of operations

While on deployment, civil engineers helped build infrastructure as well as provide humanitarian relief supplies and support to convoy operations.

While on deployment, civil engineers helped build infrastructure as well as provide humanitarian relief supplies and support to convoy operations.

Civil engineers are photographed through a survey scope as they perform their duties at a forward deployed location. Courtesy photo.

Civil engineers are photographed through a survey scope as they perform their duties at a forward deployed location. Courtesy photo.

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. -- In December, 67 members of the 78th Civil Engineer Squadron returned from a deployment as augmentees to help support the 823rd Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron engineers from Hurlbert Field, Fla. The group departed in May to different locations in Iraq and Afghanistan to help improve the infrastructure of both military and civilian areas.

But before the Airmen could depart for the theater of operations, the Airmen had to complete combat skills training at Fort McCoy, Wisc. Once they finished training, the Airmen met at Camp Beuring in Kuwait and were scattered throughout different areas in need of their assistance.

1st Lt. Steven Toebben, an engineer, was sent to Afghanistan where he helped build a road linking several communities.

"It was just a very simple gravel road, nothing fancy," Lieutenant Toebben said.
Along with helping to build roads, Lieutenant Toebben also participated in some humanitarian efforts where he was able to disperse school and medical supplies to the local communities in need.

Lieutenant Toebben said every time he encountered the local community, he had opportunity to put a smile on a face by doing things such as handing out candy to the area children.

"One of the things I found most interesting was they always wanted your pen because it was a sign of intelligence and wealth," he said.

While Lieutenant Toebben was building a road in Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. Jason Walters was traveling in convoys and delivering materials and equipment to Northern and Central Iraq. Along with delivering supplies, Sergeant Walters had the opportunity to do two humanitarian missions where he delivered needed items to orphanages.
Sergeant Walters didn't let the humanitarian spirit stop there. He was always willing to give out anything family and friends sent to him that might aid the Iraqi citizens he came in contact with.

"We would get our families to send us shoes, candy and food and we would hand it out through the windows, just to give them a little something," Sergeant Walters said.

Not all of the squadron's Airmen were augmentees for the 823rd RED HORSE; their commander spent his time working with the Army Corps of Engineers as deputy commander for the Gulf Region South District of the Army Corps of Engineers.

"We took care of the reconstruction in the southern provinces of Iraq," said Lt. Col. John Balzano, 78th CES commander. "We did mainly infrastructure reconstruction for things such as utilities, oil, hospitals, health care clinics and roads."

Colonel Balzano added a lot of the work involved capacity development, preparing the Iraqi provinces to be able to maintain their own infrastructure, such as asking for funds from their central government, and being able to prepare and stick to a budget.

When Colonel Balzano departed the area, they were seeing large strides such as the completion of 950 projects of the 1,400 projects planned throughout the previous three years with another 400-plus projects under construction.

"It was good to see those things happen. It was good to have success to lean on. But what was more gratifying to me was meeting with the local government leaders and hearing how they appreciated what we were doing and how much they wanted to see an improved Iraq," Colonel Balzano said.

He added, "You only hear about the guys with the bombs, but there are a lot of people who want to see this happen."

The Airmen agreed one of the most rewarding elements of being involved in building something, whether it was resources for American troops or resources for the surrounding communities, was seeing the progress of their efforts.

"We came here and they barely had anything and when we left they had a lot," Senior Airman Natasha Benjamin said. "They had a pool, a movie theater and a library and these are just the extras, that's not even what we came here to do."

Colonel Balzano said one of the most frustrating experiences he had during his deployment was seeing a police station they built blown up by insurgents just one week after they held a ribbon cutting for it.

But no matter how frustrating it was, they kept a hard-working attitude. "We are rebuilding it again," he said

Airmen Benjamin spent her time in Iraq as a jack-of-all-trades: she built wall units, put brackets in huts, built desks for offices, filled facility barriers with gravel and sand, and installed fire detectors.

"I never had a dull moment, I can tell you that," Airmen Benjamin said.

All of the members who deployed gained an appreciation for the lifestyle we possess as Americans.

"A lot of times as Americans we take for granted having a house and having in-door plumbing," said 1st Lt. Charles VanSlyke, an engineer.

Lieutenant VanSlyke was involved in design projects and in building projects involving case bands, which are metal dome-shaped buildings.

Both Lieutenant Toebben and Sergeant Walters used their experiences as an opportunity to share their new found appreciation for the American lifestyle with their families.

Lieutenant Toebben shared his realizations with his wife, who is a teacher at Houston County High School, who then shared those experiences with her students.

"I was able to go to local schools and give out supplies and take pictures," Lieutenant Toebben said. "And she used them to explain to her students the situation there. It humbled them. We are very lucky and should be very grateful for what we have."

Sergeant Walters shared his new appreciation for the conveniences and freedoms of life on American soil with his three young children.

"My children know about Iraq and now I can explain to my children what they have and what we have," he said.

Though Sergeant Walters is glad his children have an appreciation of what it means to be an American, he said it was difficult to be away from his family for seven months.
"It was very stressful at times; I felt like my children forgot who I was," Sergeant Walters said.