JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska --
Platoons from the 56th Engineer Company, 6th Engineer Battalion, are in Thailand, working on a series of civic projects with counterparts from the Royal Thai Air Force and the Indonesian Army.
The 63 U.S. Army Alaska soldiers are taking part in Exercise Cobra Gold 2011, an annual joint and multinational exercise sponsored by the U.S. Pacific Command.
With their Thai and Indonesian partners, the soldiers of the 56th Engineer Company are constructing multipurpose masonry buildings for three Thai schools.
"Our construction projects will have real practical benefits for the local Thai communities ," said 1st Lt. Daniel Zuniga, platoon leader and lead planner from the 56th Engineer Company.
"The masonry buildings will enhance the Thai schools' ability to host community meetings and conduct vocational training. By conducting this jointly with our Thai and Indonesian partners, we will also strengthen both military-to-military and civil-military relationships," Zuniga said.
The benefits, however, will extend beyond the Thai communities directly impacted, according to Capt. Melbourne Arledge, commander of the 56th Engineer Company.
"The most important thing we will leave behind is the symbol of our commitment to the people of Thailand," Arledge said.
The deployment has generated much excitement within the company, according to Arledge.
"This is a good opportunity for us to put our job skills to work, alongside the great people of Thailand," said Spc. Miguel Jaquez. "At the same, we will be able to learn Thai culture and traditions"
Staff Sgt. Dandy Prak, a squad leader in the 56th Engineer Company, said he has additional reasons to be excited about the mission.
Being able to participate in Exercise Cobra Gold 2011 will be a homecoming of sorts for Prak. His mother is from Laos and his father is from Cambodia - both neighboring countries of Thailand.
His parents met in Thailand after they were forced to migrate into the country during oppressive regimes in Laos and Cambodia in the 1970s.
"I am glad that I'm getting to go on this mission to help the Thais build a school," he said. "If it wasn't for the Thai government, my parents would not have survived from the Khmer Rouge regime."
"The excitement our soldiers feel is well deserved. Our soldiers spent a lot of time planning and preparing for this deployment," Arledge said.
As the lead planner for the 56th Engineer Company, Zuniga made two trips to Thailand to conduct site surveys and participate in planning conferences. He was assisted by Chief Warrant Officer 2 Arnold Justice, construction engineering technician from the 56th Engineer Company, who served as the subject matter expert for the entire planning effort.
"During our site surveys, we met with the Thai school teachers and staff to determine their exact requirements, which helped us understand their perspective and focus our planning efforts," Zuniga said.
During the planning conferences, Zuniga interacted with engineers from the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.
"Working in a joint environment was an invaluable experience and broadened our perspectives," Zuniga said. "Although the Navy and Marine Corps engineers were assigned to different project locations, we had productive discussions about engineer best practices and exchanged ideas."
Zuniga said the biggest challenge in preparing for deployment was logistics.
"We worked closely with logistics personnel from the U.S. Marine Corps to contract local equipment, supplies, and services," Zuniga said.
"There is an incredible amount of logistics that goes into supporting 63 soldiers in an area of Thailand that is fairly isolated from other units in the exercise and does not have a preexisting U.S. footprint that can accommodate our Soldiers," Zuniga said.
Given the expected logistical challenges, the two platoons from the 56th Engineers were augmented with cooks, medics and one technical engineer (surveyor) from other companies.
"My soldiers and I will be supporting the mission by preparing two hot meals per day for 63 Soldiers and 18 Indonesian soldiers across three job sites," Sgt. Keith Arnett, one of the cooks attached to the 56th Engineer Company, said.
"We will also be working with U.S. Marine Corps food service personnel, who will be providing fresh fruits and vegetables. Our job is to ensure that the unit is fully self-sustainable so they can focus on the construction mission."
While two platoons are deployed to Thailand, home-station training for the rest of the 56th Engineer Company will continue. The company is prepared to conduct split-based operations, having established a rear detachment, led by Executive Officer 1st Lt. Roxanne Jones and 1st Sgt. Gerald Eagans. Arledge, will deploy with his two platoons to command operations in Thailand.
"Our junior leaders at the company level and below did a tremendous job in planning for this deployment," Lt. Col. Marc Hoffmeister, commander of the 6th Engineer Battalion, said. "What made this truly impressive was how our young leaders were able to cope with the inherent difficulties in planning joint and combined operations.
"This is how Army engineers operate," Hoffmeister said. "We are modular at the company level, and we entrust our leaders at the squad, platoon and company level with enormous responsibilities.
The incredible work of the 56th Engineers gives me great confidence in our overall capabilities as a battalion to plan and execute combined action in support of broader strategic objectives in any part of the world."