Restoration project on remote national park brings together military, community
An aerial view of Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas National Park, Fla., Jan. 17, 2013. Air Force reservists both active and retired from Homestead Air Reserve Base’s 482nd Civil Engineer Squadron gathered at Fort Jefferson over several days in January to participate in a maintenance project for the National Park Service. Fifteen active reservists, six retired reservists, and one civilian contractor set up shop at Fort Jefferson as a training mission. (U.S. Air Force photo/Ross Tweten)
by Ross Tweten
482nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
1/31/2013 - HOMESTEAD AIR RESERVE BASE, Fla. (AFNS) -- Air Force reservists both active and retired from the 482nd Civil Engineer Squadron here gathered at Dry Tortugas National Park in Fort Jefferson Jan. 15, to participate in a maintenance project for the National Park Service.
Fifteen active reservists, six retired reservists and a civilian contractor set up shop at Fort Jefferson, a 19th century military fortification, for a training mission. The main training project was the construction of four reinforced concrete bases for large, 24-ton restored cannons to replicate the footprint for historic weapons. They used reinforced concrete with a wood grade "stamp" that gives it the appearance it had in the mid-1800s when the cannon base was actually made of timber.
Active and retired reservists teamed up with the National Park Service to allow the reserve component to can complete vital training in a cost-effective manner while the NPS accomplishes their mission of protecting, stabilizing and restoring Fort Jefferson.
"It's a win-win-win situation for all parties involved," said Lt. Col. Sean Carpenter, officer in charge of the project. "Airmen performed their annual tour and received valuable training on civil engineer core competencies in an austere environment from highly experienced, exceptionally competent retirees. The NPS benefits from the incredibly inexpensive labor force that executes the restoration and repair projects at a fraction of the cost they would pay to hire contractors."
The relationship the NPS has with the Air Force is not only mutually beneficial, but it's also beneficial to the American people, said Nancy Russell, museum curator for the South Florida Collections Management Center, a multi-park museum management program based out of Everglades National Park.
"This is a really great use of resources between two different agencies that has a tangible, visible benefit to not only the preservation of our national heritage but to the visitors of the park who can see the results," she said. "The park has so many unfunded needs, and the 482nd represents a huge asset to the park service that we don't normally have. This is a great example of government working together and not being boxed in by each other's limitations."
The project has been an ongoing effort with the 482nd CES and the NPS for several decades with the first projects started in 1973 and a wide range of maintenance projects and restoration work following.
Throughout the years, one face has been a regular fixture at the park. Retired Lt. Col. Jerry Cheeseman, former 482nd CES commander, has dedicated significant effort to maintaining the relationship between the 482nd CES and the NPS by spearheading projects like the cannon restoration.
Cheeseman coordinates with the 482nd CES and NPS year-round on a variety of logistical and planning issues. In short, he is the conduit between the active reservists of the 482nd CES, the retirees and the NPS.
"Mr. Cheeseman and the retirees have a long history of work at the park and they're leaving a great legacy," said Russell. "For us to be able to work together toward this goal, to accomplish something that has needed to be done for 100 years is pretty amazing."
The ongoing projects between the 482nd CES and the NPS at Fort Jefferson just made sense, Cheeseman added.
"The park service provides the materials and some of the tools and we provide the rest of the tools and the labor," he said. "This is an ideal setup for two government agencies to work together and save taxpayers money."
Retirees, for example, don't get financial compensation for their participation.
"The retirees pay for their own food and travel and receive no compensation in return," Carpenter said. "They volunteer their time and experience to teach CE Airmen engineering core competencies and share the legacy of the squadron."
"I think one of the reasons why so many members of the 482nd are committed to the work that we do out here, even with the unpaid retirees, is because they can really feel the legacy of the squadron and the work they have done out here over the years," said Russell. "It's a really unique situation because our service members contribute so much in what they do, but this is a very different type of contribution than what they normally are doing. They are contributing to both the preservation and the public understanding of our country."
While the retirees are working with the active reservists, the project provides a venue to foster camaraderie across generations. Living under the same brick and mortar roof, past and current members of the 482nd CES are participating in a very uique project or, as they put it, opportunity.
"Fort Jefferson is a very special place," said Master Sgt. Jeff Lafreniere, 482nd CES. "Being a part of the long history of the unit working here and enjoying the company of squadron members both past and present, that's really special. Mr. Cheeseman says there's nothing on this fort that the 482nd CES hasn't touched at one point. We're very fortunate to add to the legacy."
Fort Jefferson is roughly 70 miles west of Key West, Fla., is a 19th century military fortification. With a varied and complicated history, it was initially built as a strategic naval post protecting the southern coast of the United States. During the Civil War, Union warships capitalized on its prized location. It also served the Union as a prison. Abandoned by the late 1800s, the fort was later used as a coaling station for warships. As the usefulness of the fort subsided, the cost of maintaining it couldn't be justified as the tropical climate and frequent hurricanes took their toll.
Fort Jefferson has a varied and complicated history, it was initially built as a strategic naval post protecting the southern coast of the United States. During the Civil War, Union warships capitalized on its prized location. It also served the Union as a prison. Abandoned by the late 1800s, the fort was later used as a coaling station for warships. As the usefulness of the fort subsided, the cost of maintaining it couldn't be justified as the tropical climate and frequent hurricanes took their toll.
Now, visitors venture to Fort Jefferson for its remote location and the captivating sight that is Fort Jefferson. Many visitors also visit for the natural resources, such as the snorkeling, swimming and fishing.