People say there’s no place like home, but sometimes venturing outside the known can enrich our careers and lives in ways we couldn’t have otherwise imagined. That’s just what Maj. Aaron Hotard and Sgt. 1st Class Shane Finney emphasized on March 27 when they spoke to 35 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District employees about the benefits of joining a Forward Engineer Support Team - Advanced.
Hotard and Finney, the officer and non-commissioned officer in charge of the 62nd FEST-A at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, traveled to the district headquarters in downtown Sacramento to shed light on how FEST-A experience benefits team members and provides senior leaders important expertise.
“Our work expands the knowledge and skills of team members, and provides important technical engineering expertise to senior Army, local, state and federal agency leaders who need to make well-informed decisions,” said Hotard.
Eight FEST-A teams are located across the U.S. They’re managed by the Corps of Engineers’ Field Force Engineering, which relies on the teams to conduct site surveys and provide recommendations. When combined with real estate, environmental and logistical support teams, FFE provides responsive technical engineering and construction support capabilities during contingencies, exercises and disaster response around the globe.
Whether it’s helping respond to the destruction left in the wake of a natural disaster in the U.S., or supporting the needs of American military forces stationed abroad, their small size makes FEST-A teams more agile and efficient than some home station teams. And they hit the ground running, quickly assessing the capabilities of existing infrastructure and delivering recommendations for improvement or expansion within just a few weeks. That benefits customers and team members alike.
“It goes a little against engineer nature,” said Hotard, “but we are never going to be the project manager that takes the project from start to finish. Our six-person teams are usually only on the ground for a month or so. We provide the infrastructure assessments, scopes of work and cost estimates.”
Those three items can kick start construction and renovation projects into high gear because they help decision-makers quickly understand their options and the scale of projects.
Kishan Patel, a structural engineer with the Corps’ Sacramento District currently on Hotard’s team, said the nature of FEST-A leads to tighter teams that work closely together, but they also offer a lot of autonomy.
“I always tell people to take advantage of FEST-A because it opens up opportunities that you might otherwise never get,” said Patel.
“I think people feel they have more control over products. It feels like, ‘This is my product and I’m putting my name on it,’ and then it goes to the next person. We have meetings every day about the mission and everyone is a part of its success.”
Aside from gaining new skills and knowledge, Patel said his experience on FEST-A teams has also been gratifying in personal ways. During a deployment to Iraq, his work demanded long days with little time off, but helping build tent cities and overhead shelters to protect Marines from incoming mortars made him feel closer to people in uniform, and made his own sacrifices feel smaller.
“I was the only civilian on my first deployment to the Middle East, so it gave me a chance to bond with the military members on our team. The best part about that kind of deployment is knowing we are making a difference to Soldiers who are out there fighting.”
More recently, during a 6-month rotation between July and December 2018, Hotard’s team supported multiple projects in Italy, Ukraine, Germany, Poland and Romania.
In Poland, the team was asked to help turn Soviet-era hardened aircraft shelters into office space for American military forces who now work alongside Polish Air Force counterparts. The work was relatively simple for the team, but the concrete shelters presented unusually difficult egress options. Fortunately, they have access to subject matter experts across the Corps, and within a few days had the advice they needed to complete their work and leave the project with newfound knowledge that will likely pay dividends on future missions.
Hotard believes the work in allied nations goes a long way toward building stronger partnerships, by creating “good connection points” with their leaders.
“When we were in South Korea last April, their general officers were able to see our work up close. When the Corps of Engineers improves facility capabilities overseas, it strengthens our bonds because it demonstrates our commitment to the partnership.”
Finney, who in large part takes care of the team’s logistical needs from soup to nuts, emphasized that serving on a FEST-A team for a two to three-year term doesn’t require a contract, but they do expect a genuine commitment to participate when called upon. Whether it’s a three-week mission to Thailand, or a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan, they are counting on people to play a productive role on the team.
“Once they join the team, they are on standby for missions, though it remains a voluntary tasking,” said Finney.
One question Hotard frequently gets is whether candidates must be qualified in an engineering specialty to serve on a team, and the answer is “no.”
While FEST-A primarily needs structural, civil, mechanical, environmental, electrical and mapping engineers, Hotard stressed that each mission is unique. “Teams may be looking at roads, electrical or construction, so depending upon what that mission requires, we may also need your specialty.”