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Marines Conclude Alaska-based Operation

MERTARVIK, Alaska -- Due to rising waters, an eroding riverbank and flooding in the village of Newtok, Alaska, the village population was awarded new land rights to build and re-establish their community at another location in the state.  During the planning, the state of Alaska identified the need for an evacuation shelter and other supporting infrastructure at the new location. The Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs received a civilian inquiry to help out the people of Newtok, thus Innovative Readiness Training Mertarvik was born.

IRT Mertarvik was a Marine-led, ongoing, joint service, training opportunity for Reserve components of all branches of the U.S. military to hone their humanitarian skills, community relations and austere-condition operation capabilities.   “My experience in Alaska could be described as difficult, but extremely rewarding,” said Capt. Chad Hailey, the IRT Mertarvik project officer and 6th Engineer Support Battalion operations officer. “The Mertarvik project site is so remote that the logistical requirements of getting all of our equipment, supplies and personnel out there have become the biggest hurdle.  Having to adapt to the environment itself has also been a challenge.”

Because it is a cold and wet climate, keeping morale high amongst the project personnel can be difficult, Hailey said.  However, with all the challenges they have faced each summer, it is extremely rewarding to know service members are making such a difference in the community. 

“To observe the joy, excitement and appreciation on the faces of the villagers and to hear their sincere thanks makes overcoming all the challenges worth it,” he said. “Additionally, the quality of training received by the military personnel who participate in this exercise is a reward itself.”

According to Hailey, the first year of DOD involvement was 2009.  The end-state of that year’s mission was to establish a footprint in Mertarvik in order to allow more in-depth operations in follow-on years.  To accomplish this, Marines from 6th ESB constructed a 13,272-square foot billeting pad on top of the tundra from interlocked sections of Dura-base matting.   Dura-base is a type of composite mat made out of high-density polyethylene and has an interlocking system that allows the pieces to be puzzled together. The mats reinforce the existing soils and provide support for the daily traffic in Mertravik. They also can serve as foundations for temporary buildings.

In 2010 Marines from 6th ESB, along with sailors from Navy Reserve Forces Command and 4th Medical Battalion, 4th Marine Logistics Group, again deployed to Mertarvik establishing a forward operating base and constructing a 1,500-foot road from gravel and Dura-base matting. 

This road was imperative to the future development of Mertarvik as it allowed access for building materials to be transported from the barge landing site to the location of their planned evacuation center, said Hailey. The new, higher ground location for the village is nine miles away across the Ninglick River. There, the conceptual evacuation center would provide a safe haven in which the locals could seek refuge in case of severe flooding.

In 2011, Marines from 6th ESB, 6th Motor Transport Bn., and 6th Communication Bn., sailors from CNFRC and 4th Dental Bn., as well as airmen from the 202 Red Horse Squadron, were tasked with the vertical construction of two Southwest Asia huts, installation of underground utilities for the future evacuation center and the development of a rock quarry to provide material for future construction.   The planned 2012 project was not executed due to a landing craft carrying supplies and equipment crashing into a rock hundreds of miles away.

“This is the most austere environment I have conducted training in,” Hailey said. “This is unlike any other training a Reservist may attend during a drill weekend or during an annual training where they are based on another military installation or an approved off-base training site. This FOB has to be truly self-sustaining for extended periods of time, because the only form of resupply is via watercraft or aircraft.  This location is very isolated and cut off from the rest of the world.  The environment itself has forced us to adapt and change our standard way of doing things.” 

With two deployments to Afghanistan, Sgt. Philip Ankney, electrician chief with Headquarters and Service Company, 6th ESB, agreed, and added there is also an expeditionary element to the training.   “This is definitely some great training,” said Ankney. “It’s very similar to a real deployment in the lifestyle of living on a FOB, being in the field and just working. My Marines that haven’t deployed were exposed to a different culture and a different way of living. This absolutely prepares them for a deployment when they get the opportunity.”   The units that set up the project have been working for five years, leading to numerous completed projects and the culminating year for IRT involvement at Mertarvik.  2013 marks the end of the IRT operation, allowing the service members’ works to finally be utilized by the people of Newtok.

 “The work we have done in the last few years has paved the way for the village and contractors to further the development of the new community,” he said.

Ankney found this opportunity beneficial on many personal and professional levels for his Marines.   “The people were very friendly and had a lot of culture to share. It was an interesting and great experience interacting with the people,” he said. “Also, we made the project happen. We got so much accomplished having the opportunity to truly work and get away from the monotony of annual training at the home training center. We got to actually do our jobs…You definitely learn your MOS [military occupational specialty] in a field capacity. Helping them was a real reward.”

The villagers showed their gratitude and bid farewell to the Marines and sailors by treating them to a traditional native-Alaskan potluck, July 20.

According to Hailey, more than 100 residents of Newtok made the nine-mile boat trip to Mertarvik bringing with them many native-Alaskan foods, including several varieties of fresh and dried fish, dried seal meat, aged walrus meat, moose and several different kinds of pastries.

After the feast, the residents entertained the Marines and sailors with a show featuring traditional drums and ceremonial dancing. 

“It was a unique and memorable opportunity for our personnel to get exposure to such a rich culture,” said Hailey. “The villagers of Newtok have one of the most sincere and welcoming cultures I’ve had the pleasure of being associated with. Additionally, the quality of training received by the military personnel who participated in this exercise is a reward itself.  There are not many AT exercises of this caliber available to Reservists.  The fact is this is a ‘real world’ exercise where the quality of work they produce actually matters. 

“There is value in simple training that is often conducted in the lower 48, but at the end of the day, that hole they dug with their heavy equipment gets filled back in, or the SWA Hut they built gets torn down,” he said.  “Here, the roads they lay and the structures they build need to be perfect, because they will be left in place for the community…The quality of their work will have a lasting impact for years to come.”

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