Soldiers

The troops hit the ground running on Friday.

Soldiers from Alaska literally dropped in on Arizona to help build a road in Santa Cruz County.

Friday afternoon, members of the 1st Platoon, 84th Engineer Support Command, 6th Engineer Battalion (Combat) (Airborne) of the 2nd Engineer Brigade parachuted out of an Air Force plane, landing on a drop zone at Fort Huachuca.

For nearly two months, the parachuting combat engineer platoon will be constructing a border road and lookout roadways along the U.S. boundary with Mexico, three miles west of the Maricopa Port of Entry.

Platoon leader 2nd Lt. Michelle Zak said the experience "will be something new for the soldiers."

The company's soldiers have been called upon to repair roads in the northern part of Alaska but never built one from scratch, Zak said.

Team Leader Sgt. Jarred Gillett, a five-and-a-half-year Army veteran, who has a deployment to Iraq under his GI belt, said he has 17 jumps to his credit, but Friday was the first into a high desert environment. Being able to leave the subartic terrain of Alaska will broaden his and the other soldiers' engineering skills "and make us more proficient," he said.

Armando Carrasco, spokesman for the Department of Defense's Joint Task Force North, said the Nogales assignment is one of three planned in Santa Cruz County this year, which will bring in other units.

One thing the soldiers did not have to do was bring their own equipment; the Border Patrol assumed that responsibility by renting equipment.

The majority of the money for the program comes from special anti-narcotic government funds, Carrasco said.

Steven Passement, a spokesman for the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, said the new arrivals, part of a second and third wave of access road construction in the Nogales area, will provide a stronger capability to monitor illegal activities by people attempting to enter the United States from Mexico.

The jump

For the 32 soldiers who parachuted Friday during two passes of a C-17, it was nearly a seven-hour trip from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

As media waited on the ground, a small gray blip appeared north of the drop zone. Steadily the small outline of the C-17 grew bigger and as the plane dropped in altitude - it flew over the drop zone at abut 1,000 feet above ground level - the roar of its four engines became increasingly louder.

Then out came the first 16 soldiers, their parachutes blossoming as the aircraft's slip stream helped to rapidly fill the canopies.

For two soldiers, a potential for a major problem developed when their main chutes became tangled as they came down, requiring both to eventually pop their reserve chutes. Neither soldier was injured.

As 16 soldiers from the second pass drifted to earth, those on the ground could hear enthusiastic yells as they hit the zone.

Company Commander Capt. David MacPhail said that while standing in the jump door of the C-17 before he jumped, he was taken aback by the many miles of clear view.

"The difference between Alaska and here is unbelievable," he said.

The project

In November 2010, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin came to Nogales to announced a $41-million package of border-related infrastructure projects. The projects included 2.8 miles of new border fencing; a renovation of the Morley Avenue pedestrian border crossing; a security upgrade for downtown drainage tunnels; a reconfiguration of the pedestrian walkway at the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry; and six-to-eight miles of all-weather border access roads and 22 miles of additional access roads west of Nogales.

During a public meeting in December 2010, Al Riera, a contractor with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the road-building project would be completed by military crews.

The first crew of 45 Marines arrived in the area last January for a six-week stint, and additional crews have rotated in since then. Riera estimated that the entire project would take up to five years to complete.

 

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