The armed forces reserves train regularly, staying ready for when they are called upon. The men of 192 Construction Engineering Flight (CEF) have been hearing the call a lot.
So much so, that at least half of the unit has an Afghanistan campaign medal. Others, like Sgt. Blaine Reynolds, have effectively been full-time soldiers during the campaign. His civilian career as a carpenter has been on hold, as he worked through four tours in Afghanistan. Like most of his comrades, he is eager to go.
“I like the travel and adventure – the unknown,” said Reynolds. “It gets in your blood.”
They are gas fitters, carpenters, plumbers, electricians and other tradesmen, and their skills are needed to build whatever facilities the military needs. In the Gulf War of 1991, Air Command was frustrated in trying to build a operating base in Qatar – there was a lack of construction engineers available to rapidly build and maintain it. In response, the air reserve program was born, and in 1996 the 192 Airfield Engineering Flight was established in Abbotsford as one of four reserve units across Canada.
The name was later changed from AEF to CEF, to more accurately reflect the work they do. Today they are based out of a military transmitter/receiver site in Aldergrove that dates back to the 1950s, and is due to receive as much as $7 million in facilities upgrades.
The 38 men in the unit generally train every Thursday night, plus one weekend per month. Most nights it’s tool time. Last Thursday they discussed running a chainsaw, and pouring concrete. They have specialties, but each becomes a jack-of-all-trades.
Once per year they do readiness training where they have a range day. They practise with rifles and pistols, throw live grenades, and train on a machine gun. In the classroom, they learn the rules of engagement. Depending on their deployment, they may also receive specialized training, such as being part of a convoy.
While they are not a fighting force, their discipline and their approach is straight-up military.
Capt. Pete Pitcher, the flight commander, wants people with a great work ethic and who are thick-skinned. He had a commanding officer who, on a rainy day, with a job to be done outdoors, formed up his troops and marched them into a water-filled ditch. Rain was not an issue.
He has taken a page from that mentor’s book – everyone is part of the team, and they are in neck deep.
“If you’re going to be with us, you’re going to do what we do,” he said.
Rain is the least of their problems in Afghanistan. In scorching heat that soars to over 50 C, Reynolds said troops were able to literally fry an egg on the runway in Kandahar. In that oven, if they forget to set their tools down in the shade, leaving the metal in the baking sun, they will not be able to pick it up again. They have to watch each other. If a man’s shirt is dry, and he has stopped sweating, he is dangerously dehydrated.
Master warrant officer Tom Bentley has made four trips to Afghanistan with 192. He first signed up as regular forces in 1975, and had a 23-year career before switching to civilian life and the reserves.
Typical of the troops in 192 CEF, he is keen to take a deployment.
“Everyone’s proud to serve – it’s a chance to go and do the job you’ve been trained to do.”
Having been in the regular forces as an engineer during the first Gulf War, in Yugoslavia, and in the Golan Heights region between Israel and Syria, he knows the life of a military man stationed overseas.
“I can go there and make their life easier, by doing my job,” he said.
Master warrant officer Al Labelle has been with the unit for a month, but joined the army in 1986, and served in the infantry with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI). He is one of three full-time soldiers with the unit.
He has had two tours in Kabul, Afghanistan, managing projects done by civilian contractors, including a nursing institute and a school for boys. You have to be in a place where such institutions have been lost, in order to appreciate the effect that they have.
“You can see a difference. You see the difference in the way they behave, the way they dress – it went from a war zone to a trading route.”
One of the 192’s finest moments was their part in project Noctua (latin for Little Owl), when they were tasked with building hangars at camp Kandahar for UAVs (drones) and helicopters, along with facilities for some 300 people.
They got the job done early, so they added a much-needed wing onto the base hospital, which serves both civilian and military patients, and took on other projects.
The result of the can-do attitude was the team earning a Task Force Commander’s Commendation.