OLD HARBOR, Alaska -- Army Reserve Soldiers from units around the Pacific have assembled in a very rural location in Alaska to help with the development of a community, testing their mettle while strengthening bonds among the local residents.
“Six, seven, eight,” Sgt. Robert Laux, a construction engineer from the 297th Engineer Company stated to describe the start of a typical workday at the village of Old Harbor on Kodiak Island, Alaska. Wake up at 6 a.m. Chow at 7 a.m. Work at 8 a.m.
He and other Army Reserve Soldiers from various units under the 411th Engineer Battalion, 303rd Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, 9th Mission Support Command are in Old Harbor during the summer to construct an access road to the future site of a hydroelectric powerhouse. The road construction project for the local residents is part of the Army’s Innovative Readiness Training in effort to stimulate the economy and increase the population of roughly 216 which has been in steady decline over the years. The IRT program at Old Harbor is in its final phase and will be completed at the end of August.
Additionally, the engineer companies are supported by the 411th Engineer Battalion Forward Support Company.
The engineers are mainly using heavy-duty construction equipment to build the nearly 1.5 mile road.
Sgt. Laux enjoys what he does while working at Old Harbor and describes his earthmoving equipment as big Tonka toys.
“Honestly, the days are great,” the recently promoted sergeant said. “I love operating equipment.”
Laux is an Army Reserve Soldier who is an Alaskan resident. His primary job on site is to operate heavy equipment. These vehicles range from a small skid-steer loader to 10-ton dump trucks.
Another construction engineer, Guam resident Sgt. El Jessica Balajadia, from the 797th Engineer Vertical Construction Company, works alongside Laux.
She operates heavy equipment such as a hydraulic excavator, loader, and road roller.
Although she’s confident operating heaving equipment and makes safety a top priority, Balajadia is wary about her working environment, particularly with the potential presence of Kodiak bears.
There are about 3,500 Kodiak bears that live on Kodiak Island in the Kodiak Archipelago with a density of about 0.7 bears per square mile.
Balajadia knows how to properly react when encountering bears, but joked, “The first thing I might do (if confronting a bear) is yell and run.”
Sergeants Laux and Balajadia, as well as the other Army Reservists involved in the road construction project appreciate the hospitality of the residents of Old Harbor. On occasion, the Soldiers provide services to individual residents which helps foster positive relations between the Army and the local community.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Khristian Viray, the primary construction manager for the road construction, elaborated further.
“We get random requests (from residents),” he said. “Like, ‘Hey, can you help fix my boat, or my truck?’”
“Luckily, not a lot of breakdowns happen all the time and our mechanics have a lot of free time, so they’ve been summoned by the town,” Viray added. “Yesterday, they fixed (local resident) Mr. Ray Krumrey’s bulldozer.”
Subsequently, the residents are greatly appreciative with what the Army has provided, both on a professional and personal level.
On one occasion, Soldiers assisted Igumen Ioasaph, a Russian Orthodox Monk assigned to Three Saints Church in Old Harbor. They helped clear his house for renovation and repaired his personal vehicle.
“They took my truck, and they brought it back whole! So, I’m really grateful for that.”
Victoria Christiansen, another resident recalled another act of kindness by the military where Soldiers widened a narrow path to a nearby lake.
“I think that just having access to the lake is easier, safer, and is a huge thing for our community and all the people that have never been able to enjoy the lake,” she said. “I feel like on a hot sunny day we’re all going to be able to get there easier and enjoy it together as a community.”
Moreover, she added, “With the new road we’re all going to be able to get there, drive there, and walk the trail in two, three minutes, being able to utilize the lake together. That’s a big deal to me.”
The road construction project will be completed by the end of August. And with the Army’s contribution to the growth and development of Old Harbor, whether on a small or large scale, from repairing local residents’ vehicles to undertaking a construction project, the Soldiers hope to earn the respect of the community.
Sgt. Laux quipped, “I wish we didn’t finish so…quickly. I love Old Harbor.”