SAVANNAH, Ga. – Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain spread itself out before Piper Bazemore, recently strapped into a MH-60 Blackhawk helicopter as part of an engineering mission in the region.
Bazemore, a topographer in the Savannah District, is a member of the 542nd Engineer Detachment Forward Engineering Support Team - Advanced. The FEST-A, an elite team of civilian volunteers, deploy to some of the most austere environments in the world to use their specialized expertise.
The FEST-A provides engineering solutions to Army forces deployed to remote, forward locations. Once on site they use their training, experience and cutting-edge technology to plan construction sites and base camps, conduct environmental reconnaissance, and inform senior Army leaders commanding forces at forward deployed locations.
Maj. Jason Winkelmann, FEST-A commander, said he is looking to recruit qualified members to add depth to the team.
Four positions are currently available for structural, civil, topographer and electrical engineering slots. Some positions will be filled by two people to create depth to the team when notified of a deployment.
“This is an excellent opportunity for individuals who are looking for a unique challenge and to be a part of the forward edge of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in support of the nation,” said Winkelmann.
The team is one of eight highly-specialized teams in the Corps created to cater to the demand for civil and construction engineering projects. Teams like this are in demand because the active-duty Army exclusively handles combat-centered projects and lack the requisite technical expertise. The FEST-A fills this gap in capability, said Winkelmann.
The all-volunteer team provides combined experience and technical expertise to support forward deployed forces on large- and small-scale engineering projects, said Winkelmann.
“We can provide an unmatched breadth of knowledge and expertise to the people and locations we support,” he said. “The problems we deal with are not routine, but it’s important work.”
The unit also partners with a reach-back operations center located in Vicksburg, Mississippi. This center provides reach-back capability, or a virtual link to subject-matter experts and unusual technologies, furnishing extra resources to FEST-A members in the field, said Winkelmann.
FEST-A members were previously employed on full-time status. Recently, Corps leadership converted the standing team to an all-volunteer group due to defense budget cuts. As a result, alumni members had to seek other full-time jobs or projects, said Winkelmann.
Currently, the team intermittently conducts training as individual schedules allow, he said.
“It’s a constant juggling act between satisfying FEST-A requirements and not interfering with primary duties,” said Winkelmann. “I have to be supportive and understanding of the supervisor’s needs but also articulate FEST-A requirements and objectives we need to accomplish.”
Originally, FEST-A training exercises were held Sept. 15-26 at Hunter Army Air Field and Fort Stewart, both in Georgia, to ensure deployment readiness by January 2015. However, since training concluded, the team is being considered to assist with engineering efforts in the Middle East.
During the two-week training period, members participated in team-building activities satisfying individual training requirements on use of equipment and FEST-A missions. They concluded with collective training exercises that tested their ability to overcome real-world problems they may encounter while deployed, such as designing a base camp, conducting environmental assessments, and conducting route and bridge reconnaissance.
The two-week exercise was the first time the volunteer team assembled under Winklemann’s command.
“It can be intense and challenging,” said Bazemore. “But these trainings prepare and remind us that all systems have to be in place to effectively execute a mission.”
Corps leadership at district and division levels arrived during the training to witness the team in action. Leaders included Brig. Gen. David Turner, South Atlantic Division commander, Col. Thomas Tickner, Savannah District commander, Command Sgt. Maj. Antonio Jones of the South Atlantic Division, and Sgt. Maj. Mark Andrews of Headquarters G3 Operations Staff.
“Most people view the Corps as a domestic-based team,” said Jones. “But we perform missions worldwide and have the ability to tie military land organization and civilian skill sets together that no other Army organization can provide.”
On the final day of exercises, FEST-A members and observers gathered to discuss training accomplishments, opportunities and challenges they faced during the two-week period.
“Overall, we’re a better functioning team because we were all able to coalesce for the first time with both new and old members,” said Moore, Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge of the FEST. “Our next challenge will be to see how we operate in an austere environment, having to build and survey infrastructure in a field environment.”
Employees interested in joining the team must have the necessary skills to meet qualifications of the respective position, obtain and maintain a secret security clearance, pass a deployment physical, and obtain support from their supervisor to join.
Résumés may be submitted to Maj. Jason Winkelmann at firstname.lastname@example.org and the Savannah District military planner Marc Dumas at email@example.com.