Va. Guard engineers destroy derelict and dangerous structures

Virginia National Guard Soldiers from the Powhatan-based 180th Engineer Company, 276th Engineer Battalion and Airmen from the Virginia Beach-based 203rd RED HORSE Squadron demolish abandoned, decrepit and drug-trade related houses Aug. 19, 2014, in Petersburg, Va., as part of Operation Renew. Operation Renew provides engineer assets to assist in reclaiming control of known drug trafficking areas by destroying structures known to have ties to the local drug trade. The program operates under the supervision of the Virginia Guard Counterdrug Task Force and in conjunction with the City of Petersburg and local law enforcement. Approximately 25 Soldiers and Airmen are participating in the operation and plan to demolish seven structures Aug. 18-29, 2014. This is the third consecutive year Virginia Guard engineers have teamed up with the City of Petersburg for Operation Renew. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Terra C. Gatti, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

Virginia National Guard Soldiers from the Powhatan-based 180th Engineer Company, 276th Engineer Battalion and Airmen from the Virginia Beach-based 203rd RED HORSE Squadron demolish abandoned, decrepit and drug-trade related houses Aug. 19, 2014, in Petersburg, Va., as part of Operation Renew. Operation Renew provides engineer assets to assist in reclaiming control of known drug trafficking areas by destroying structures known to have ties to the local drug trade. The program operates under the supervision of the Virginia Guard Counterdrug Task Force and in conjunction with the City of Petersburg and local law enforcement. Approximately 25 Soldiers and Airmen are participating in the operation and plan to demolish seven structures Aug. 18-29, 2014. This is the third consecutive year Virginia Guard engineers have teamed up with the City of Petersburg for Operation Renew. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Terra C. Gatti, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

PETERSBURG, Va. – Virginia National Guard Soldiers and Airmen demolished abandoned, decrepit and drug-trade related houses Aug. 18-29, 2014, in Petersburg, Va., as part of Operation Renew, a program that provides National Guard engineer assets to assist in reclaiming control of known drug trafficking areas by destroying structures with connections to the local drug trade. Approximately 25 Soldiers from the Powhatan-based 180th Engineer Company, 276th Engineer Battalion and Airmen from the Camp Pendleton-based 203rd RED HORSE Squadron participated in this year’s demolition of seven structures.

“This is certainly a great day for the city of Petersburg,” said Brig. Gen. Timothy P. Williams, the Adjutant General of Virginia. “We have 25 Soldiers and Airmen that are part of this event and they’ve moved over one million pounds of debris and are getting wonderful training that can’t be beat in terms of providing military skills in support of our community here.”

This year’s event marks the third consecutive year Virginia National Guard Soldiers and Airmen have worked with the city of Petersburg on Operation Renew, knocking down 12 structures in 2012 and 15 in 2013.

“Operation Renew will help the city make progress in our efforts to reduce the large number of dilapidated structures,” said Petersburg mayor, Brian Moore. “Sometimes, to make something new, you’ve got to take out a few things to clear the way.”

Chief John Dixon, from the Petersburg Police Department echoed the mayor’s sentiments, saying, “This is a great day. What we’re about to see is what people might look at as tearing down, when it’s really a building up.”

During the time spent in Petersburg, the engineers received kudos from members of the community who stopped by to thank them for their service and for taking down the oftentimes-dangerous structures where criminal activity sometimes flourished.

“We’ve had people come by and tell us that we rock, and that this is one of the best things that’ve been done for the city,” Staff Sgt. Harry Stretz, an engineer with the 203rd RED HORSE.

Operation Renew operates under the supervision of the Virginia National Guard’s Counterdrug Task Force and not only helps communities by destroying structures related to the drug trade, but also enhances military readiness by allowing Army and Air National Guard members to utilize their equipment and exercise their military specialties in a real world environment, with real world hazards.

“These guys are all engineers in their National Guard positions,” explained Warrant Officer 1 Andrew H. Owen. “This gives them an opportunity to hone their engineering skills in a real world mission and helps them to accomplish their mission, whether stateside during a natural disaster situation or overseas in combat.”

The joint nature of the operation allowed Army and Air engineers to work side-by-side knocking down derelict structures, trading knowledge and gaining experience on each other’s equipment, making for more well-rounded engineers.

“We train on their stuff, they train on our stuff and it gives us a lot of variety, to work with different equipment that we’re not used to,” explained Stretz.

In 1989, Congress authorized the National Guard to perform drug interdiction and anti-drug activities in support of narcotic law enforcement agencies under Title 32 USC, section 112. For more than 20 years, the Virginia National Guard Counterdrug Program has fostered and sustained positive relationships with a number of Virginia law enforcement agencies and community-based organizations, working to eradicate drug activity.

In order to participate in Operation Renew, the City of Petersburg submitted a written request that included a description of the drug problems affecting the area. They city also ensured utilities had been turned off at each of the potential demolition sites, provided a police escort for the Soldiers and Airmen as they moved their equipment through Petersburg and while they worked on site, as well as providing additional personnel from the city to ensure the mission was completed safely and successfully.

“Whatever I can do with my team, as a whole, to help out the city, is a wonderful feeling,” said Staff Sgt. Devoe Coke, the safety noncommissioned officer and an engineer with the 180th. Devoe lives in Petersburg and making an impact in his local community through his work with the National Guard was particularly fulfilling.

The 180th Engineer Company recently took part in a battalion-wide effort to replace culverts and improve road conditions at the Virginia National Guard Fort Pickett Maneuver Training Center near Blackstone during their 2013 annual training period. They also took part in community service projects in Richmond and Stafford County during their annual training in 2012 and 2011 where they cleared land for a bike and pedestrian trail and Civil War park. The unit returned from a nine-month federal deployment to Iraq in October 2009 where they conducted more than 20 engineer missions, with six of them taking more than two months to complete. Missions included building or expanding small forward-operating bases used for joint security patrols with Iraqi forces, unmanned aerial vehicle airstrip construction, training compound improvements for the Iraqi Special Forces, site preparation for a bridge installation and the reopening of the last stretch of Iraqi Highway 1.

The 203rd RED HORSE Squadron is a self-contained, rapid-response engineering force capable of doing expedient damage-requirements assessments, heavy-damage repairs, bare-base development and heavy construction operations such as constructing aircraft parking ramps, aprons, taxi and runways, roads and munitions pads. RED HORSE units possess special capabilities including well drilling, explosives demolition, quarry operations and concrete and asphalt paving. In addition, the unit has its own internal support personnel, including services, vehicle maintenance, security, logistics and information management.

The unit was formed in 1985 and is paired with the 202nd RED HORSE Squadron based in Camp Blanding, Florida. The 203rd RHS has been mobilized and deployed to Southwest Asia in support of the Global War on Terrorism in 2003, 2006-2007 and again in 2011. The unit has also conducted shorter deployment for horizontal and vertical construction projects to locations throughout the state, nation and world to include: Hawaii, Florida, South Carolina, Maryland, Washington, Arizona, New Mexico, California, Guam, England, Panama, Honduras, Italy and Germany.

RED HORSE stands for Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers, and the unit provides a highly mobile civil engineering response force to support contingency operations worldwide.

Photos: Engineers destroy derelict and dangerous structures in Petersburg – Aug. 19, 2014