By Staff Sgt. Amber Sorsek
302nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. —
For the first time, Air Force Reservists from the 302nd Civil Engineer Squadron traveled to Gallup, N.M. to build homes for the Navajo Nation. Twenty-four Reservists were able to practice their profession and perform Innovative Readiness Training during their Annual Tour from May 22 to June 5 this year. Building homes for communities in need all over the world is a program for Civil Engineer Reservists called Operation Footprint.
“This is a resource that communities learn to utilize,” said Senior Master Sgt. Ralph Peck, 302nd CES Operations Superintendent. “It really is a win-win relationship,” added Maj. Bryan Cooper, 302nd CES deputy command and Officer In Charge of the work performed in Gallup, N.M. “This selected community benefits from our skills and we get to hone our wartime skills.”
Operation Footprint brings together different non-profit organizations with the Department of Defense. This partnership is designed to give Reservists the opportunity to perform IRT, which is real-world training to prepare for wartime missions, while providing a service to selected communities. The 302nd CES Reservists worked with the Southwest Indian Foundation, a local non-profit organization in Gallup, N.M. that primarily serves Navajo, Hopi, Zuni and other Pueblo tribes by targeting the housing shortage.
“The home construction is only for Navajo families on the reservation,” said Mr. Joseph Esparza, SWIF Director Project Office. “The Navajo Housing Authority provides the funding for the building materials and we [SWIF] provide the labor, which is where the Reservists come in to help.”
According to the NHA, there is a shortage of 34,000 housing units on the Navajo reservation. These desperately needed homes are of a modular design and constructed in a warehouse then transported to the home sight for assembly.
According to Esparza, the Reservists complete 85 percent of the home construction in a warehouse. Air Force Reservists from the 302nd Airlift Wing helped build three homes in the warehouse during their two-week annual training.
“The warehouse construction makes things a lot easier because it allows us to keep working in any climate or weather condition,” said Cooper. “All of our materials and tools are located in one area and makes the work run smoothly.”
In addition to building homes in the warehouse, 302nd AW Reservists also responded to maintenance requests for other homes.
“We brought one completed home from the warehouse to the site,” said Cooper. “We also helped complete a sound wall for one home, we finished the electrical, plumbing, and sheetrock for another home, and put in kitchen cabinets, bathroom fixtures, doors and windows for another home.”
“It was a complete assembly process, where we got to work on five houses at various stages, from setting a foundation to painting,” said Senior Airman Christopher Blackburn, 302nd CES Engineer Journeyman.
It takes approximately 35 days to complete one home in the warehouse, which is why this is a team effort explains Peck. “This is a continuous project with various CES teams from different squadrons rotating,” he said.
Cooper informed from the time a family begins the application for a home until the time they get to move into the home is about two years. “When we got there, the goal was to keep the momentum going from the previous team and turn around as much as possible,” said Cooper.
The American Housing Survey defines inadequate housing as moderate to severe problems to include deficiencies in plumbing, heating, electricity, hallways, and upkeep. According to the NHA Needs Assessment Study, over half of all families living within Navajo tribal lands have either no indoor or incomplete bathroom facilities and either no or incomplete kitchen facilities.
“This is a great project for our Reservists because it means something,” said Cooper. “Instead of putting something together for training, and then tearing it down, the work with these homes is making a real impact for families and it is something permanent.”
According to Esparza, the Air Force Reserve Command and SWIF have been working together since July of 1997 to provide homes for the homeless Navajo Indian families by coordinating the construction, transportation, and erection of new homes.
Operation Footprint is not about just erecting any kind of home, it is about doing one home at a time and meeting the needs of the Navajos who wish to live more traditionally. The program represents one footprint or small step to meet the human needs of individuals who want to retain the traditional way of living rather than breaking tradition and move into apartment complexes.
Over the years, the relationship between SWIF and Reservists has grown stronger. This year, 302nd CES Reservists were invited to participate in the 2nd Annual Veterans celebration with the Roosevelt Elementary School in Gallup, N.M.
“This was my favorite part the trip and maybe even the most rewarding part my Air Force Reserve career,” said Senior Airman Sean Boice, 302nd CES Engineer Journeyman. “When we arrived to the event, the children could barely contain their excitement when they saw us.” The Reservists taught the children a few basic drill movements and how to render courtesies to the U.S. flag.
Operation Footprint not only provides a community service and IRT, but this partnership and relationship changes the perception of individual Citizen Airmen.
“What I like best about being in the Air Force Reserve are the doors it opens,” said Blackburn. “I get to experience new places, people and have the opportunity to truly make a difference.”