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Utah Air Guard engineers train at Guantanamo

Air Force Staff Sgt. Merrill Brown, a carpenter with the Utah Air National Guard's 151st Civil Engineering Squadron, makes repairs to a dock during training at U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Aug. 24, 2009. The 151st CES is conducting two weeks of annual training by completing engineering projects around the naval base for Joint Task Force Guantanamo. (JTF Guantanamo photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Emily Monson)

Air Force Staff Sgt. Merrill Brown, a carpenter with the Utah Air National Guard's 151st Civil Engineering Squadron, makes repairs to a dock during training at U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Aug. 24, 2009. The 151st CES is conducting two weeks of annual training by completing engineering projects around the naval base for Joint Task Force Guantanamo. (JTF Guantanamo photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Emily Monson)

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba -- Not just anybody gets the opportunity to board a plane and visit Joint Task Force Guantanamo. For approximately 35 Utah Air National Guardsmen with the 151st Civil Engineering Squadron, U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay provides an exotic and unique location to conduct their two-week annual training.

"The [National Guard Bureau] has certain projects available in different states and countries," said Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Doug Lukes, the chief of operations for the mission. "We were given different options and we chose [Guantanamo Bay]."

The Salt Lake City-based engineers arrived in mid-August and have kept busy working on projects to enhance the quality of life for service members throughout the base - including making repairs to docks and bleachers, [installing] sheetrock in buildings on the leeward side of the naval station and tracing electrical circuits at the hospital. The variety of projects allows all of the unit's carpenters, electricians and heavy equipment operators to use and hone their individual skills.

"[The people at Guantanamo Bay] have provided anything to us that we don't have," said Lukes.
These projects have given the Guardsmen an opportunity to work on skills they would not normally have the chance to practice at their home station. The Guardsmen have had to find ways to work around challenges here - such as repairing the end of a dock from a boat - which none have ever done before.

"Normally, we would be doing more on-base, smaller projects," said Lukes. "We wouldn't be getting the hands-on [experience] that we have been able to get here."

According to the Guardsmen, training back home generally consists of interior work inside small rooms. Working in a different atmosphere and with different equipment is proving to be a positive experience as they tackle projects outdoors with larger lumber and materials.

"The whole experience has been a learning experience," said Staff Sgt. Merrill Brown, who is working as superintendent of a project for the first time.

Along on this deployment are five firefighters from the same unit who volunteered to assist with the engineering mission. For them, the experience provides an opportunity to learn a new skill. According to Air Force Airman 1st Class Michelle Manuel, the firefighters are learning what their strengths are in the carpentry and structures field.

"If you're good at something, you do it," said Manuel, who's been in the Air National Guard now for just a year. "If not, someone will show you how to do it."

Manuel can relate some tasks to her firefighting skills. Using tools to tear boards off the dock was similar to performing vehicle extractions. Other tasks - such as nailing and using certain tools - are not as familiar.

"I've never done anything like this," said Manuel. "It's all brand new to me."

Their time here hasn't been all work though. The service members have been able to take some time to enjoy the recreation activities the naval station has to offer, such as fishing, boating and snorkeling.

For more information about Joint Task Force Guantanamo, visit the Web site at www.jtfgtmo.southcom.mil.