Lajes on Iraq Drawdown: Engineer closes shops, reopens base

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Angelique N. Smythe
  • 65th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
Most people feel surprised when they receive orders to deploy to a contingency location while on a short tour assignment to Lajes Field.

However, Capt. Steven Mackinder, 65th Mission Support Group executive officer, said his deployment to help shut down operations in Iraq was no surprise at all.

Originally from the 65th Civil Engineer Squadron, Mackinder said he arrived to Lajes knowing full well that he would deploy. The engineer was on station nine months before flying to the U.S. for a month of combat skills training and then to Iraq to join the 467th Expeditionary Prime Base Engineer Emergency Force (Prime BEEF) Squadron.

"Our squadron's mission was to provide engineering support for all of Iraq," he said. "We had facility engineer teams at five to seven bases around Iraq and we had the ability to send people out to any base to help with anything. In country, we had approximately 70 engineers, 25 were officers."

The engineers did surveys, maps, structure assessments, project designs and project management.

"We were there to do minor construction projects but because we were leaving in December, there was not much construction going on," said Mackinder.

Mackinder started out his tour on an Army post at Contingency Operating Station Kalsu with the 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment. He was the officer in charge of seven engineers there.

"We did a lot of surveying and mapping support," he said. "The big project was to put in four new helicopter parking areas; they were expanding their airfield, and we helped them with designing the layout."

This was important for the apache helicopters which provided ground support for the troops in the area.

"We got mortared a lot," Mackinder said. "When they had the apaches in the air, we didn't get mortared so much because as soon as (the bad guys) launched mortars, the apaches would respond, and they (the bad guys) didn't want to get killed. So we liked seeing the apaches flying around."

Mackinder stayed at COS Kalsu for two months, and, as part of the drawdown, he and his team closed up their shop and moved to their FET of about 20 engineers in Baghdad.

"We had about 50 soldiers attached to us from an Iowa National Guard construction unit," he said. "That was different because, usually, it's Air Force personnel attached to Army units; but we had operational control of those soldiers who were actually replacing an Air Force construction team. That was pretty unique."

Since Mackinder had just gained experience in closing his shop in COS Kalsu, his boss placed him in charge of closing their shop in Baghdad.

"We were much bigger in Baghdad; we had more people, more equipment, more everything," he said. "There were eight of us at COS Kalsu and about 20 of us in Baghdad. We had all kinds of heavy equipment, loaders, excavators and big trucks; we had a huge compound in Baghdad. We probably had 50 computers just for us to use. We had a bunch of shops filled with tools and we needed to figure out what to do with them. I had to write a five-page plan on how we were going to get our unit out. We boxed up supplies and took them to a unit that dealt with excess inventory. One of the last things we did was box up our computers. We also had to turn in all of our vehicles and equipment and inventory everything we were leaving behind for the Iraqis, such as office furniture and refrigerators that were in the office."

In August 2011, Mackinder traveled to an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia to do more drawdown preparations. It was a base that had been occupied several years before, shut down and then kept only as a war reserve materiel site. Minimal maintenance was done to keep the buildings and infrastructure there from falling apart.

"A lot of work needed to be done in order to reopen it for the F-16 unit from Balad to arrive," Mackinder said. "They were sending a team of 60 engineers from the states, but they had a really long delay so they decided to send some from our squadron to get as much done as we could before that team came in. So, I took 13 guys down -- half from Baghdad and half from Balad."

The Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning team were constantly working on air conditioning units in the dormitories, work centers and dining facility. With so many electrical problems in every building, the electricians stayed quite busy as well. A lot of work needed to be done with the water and sewer systems.

"We based ourselves out of where the old CE squadron was located, so there were shops, a structure shop, an electrical shop, but no tools," Mackinder said. "We had only brought minimal tools so we could do the basic stuff. So one of the biggest things we had to do was build a list of items the contracting office would need to purchase so that the 60-man team could have the appropriate tools when they got there. We didn't have the manpower to actually do those projects ourselves, but we built the materials list and statement of work so that the big team could hit the ground running and wouldn't have to waste any time figuring out what needed to be done."

Mackinder and his team bridged the gap in time between the decision to reopen the airbase and when the 60-man team would arrive. This base allowed the F-16 Fighting FalconĀ unit to leave Iraq during the drawdown period, but still kept them in close proximity to support ground troops when needed.

"I think our guys did a really good job," Mackinder said. "They were busy for nine solid days. That was probably the one part of my deployment that I'm actually most proud of because that's really what a CE officer's main job is -- to lead a small team to actually do something just like that."

Mackinder redeployed to Lajes in October 2011. He was very grateful to Team Lajes, the 65th CES and their tight group of friends for taking care of his wife, Jill, who is also the 65th CES secretary.

Editor's note: This is part three of a series on Airmen from Lajes Field, Azores, who've played important roles during the drawdown of troops from Iraq in December 2011.