What do you do if you have a few miles of dusty, desert road which now resembles the surface of the moon? Call in the Marines.
This may seem like overkill, but it is exactly what the Pima County Department of Transportation has done for the last four years through their partnership with the Innovative Readiness Training program. This program pairs communities in need with active and reserve military units’ training requirements.
In this case, a friendship between Chief Warrant Officer 2 Miguel Olivas and David Zalinsky, a member of the Pima County DOT, led to the discussion of how Olivas could bring the benefits of Marine training to his hometown. Six years and four projects later, the Marines of 6th Engineer Support Battalion have improved almost 15 miles of community access roads.
This year, their focus of effort is on the improvement of a 2.3 mile stretch that connects South San Joaquin Road to South Sandario Road in Tucson. Oddly, the 2.3 miles on which they are working is the only portion of the six mile road that is unpaved, but the thoroughfare acts as an access to a regional airport, a commuter bypass and a school bus route.
The Marines scrapped the pock-marked top layers of the road off, down to the bare desert ground, and are rebuilding it from scratch. The topsoil, which the Marines call “moondust,” is a super fine powder that kicks up easily and bonds poorly, so thousands of gallons of water a day are necessary to bind the various layers of materials to the new road.
“We would have one or two water trucks at the most coming to this area,” said John Olivas, Pima County DOT Project Manager and former Marine. “We would have to be real resourceful with the amount of water we put down; the trips would take longer because it’s about 10 minutes away, and about 10 minutes to fill the truck, so roughly 45 minutes round trip.”
Due to the cost and the risk of training with fuels, the bulk fuel company frequently trains using water in their pumps, bladders and vessels. This is done for purely logical reasons, but these Marines have been able to use that experience to further benefit the job, pumping water directly to the site from roughly two miles away.
Olivas says it is the precise water level in the roadbed mix that makes the road strong and durable.
“We are using this lot of milling stockpiles,” said Diaz, project officer-in-charge. “We’re using that to mix with local soil and create an actual hardball road with the water we’re providing.”
The readily available filtered water also means clean drinking water and showers for the Marines who have taken over the Pima County materials yard as their homes away from home.
“As reservists there’s a learning curve with COVID especially,” said Diaz. “We have guys that haven’t been to a drill or been able to practice what they learned in their military occupational specialty school because of COVID. This is a great opportunity to learn from subject matter experts out in the civilian world.”
Olivas said the first year working on the project he spent some time teaching a young Marine how to use a grader. That Marine was then deployed shortly thereafter and where he was able to significantly and positively impact the abilities of his unit overseas.
And that impact goes both ways for the project manager.
“This type of training would have meant everything when I was a Marine,” Olivas said. “When I was in, only staff noncommissioned officers were allowed to run graders and we were only allowed to grease them. We were limited to forklift style equipment as operators. Here we have lance corporals jumping on graders. It’s awesome.”
“We get a big benefit from it,” said Olivas. “The amount of equipment, the amount of personnel. We could never supply that because we have too many other jobs going on; and the camaraderie, to get to hang out with the Marines and pass on my knowledge. Being able to do that is just awesome.”
The feeling is mutual for the Marines.
“We do a lot of training back at the home training center that is just for us,” said Diaz, who appreciates the work as a community member and a Marine. “Here we have a product that we are going to give to the local community and it means something. If these Marines ever come back here they can say, ‘Hey, I did that, I built that. I know what it means to help this community out with their roadways.’ It not only affects their training and skillset, but it affects the community that will rely on their work.”
“It means a lot more because it affects me and my community,” Diaz said. “I get to explain what I did. If you want to know what I do for a living, this is it. Many people think we shoot all the time, or drive tanks, or fly planes. So I can show them, this is what I do. The project puts my name and the Marine Corps’ name on the community, and Marines are proud.”
With a footprint and an impact such as the one seen here, there’s a push at the highest levels to keep these types of opportunities available.
“It just makes sense,” said Anil Phull, Military and Veterans staffer for Senator Krysten Sinema’s office. “This is six times the labor force the local DOT could be doing if they put all of their operators to work. As service members, the military is built on squeezing value out of every nickel they can. The training is hard work. You become specialists through this type of program.”
“It will be interesting to see what more difficult projects the Marines can tackle in the coming years,” Phull said. “That would be a great advancement every time you get out here. The reserve component is such a big part of the services more and more. This where they should be.”
With involvement of local Marines, local municipalities, and Senator Krysten Sinema’s office, the IRT program may have a long-term home in Arizona.