For the men and women fighting the war on terrorism, it can mean the difference between success and failure - and even life and death.
The airmen of the 447th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron utilities team know that getting clean water to the troops and safely disposing of wastewater is one of the cornerstones of military operations.
Although it's often back-breaking, filthy, smelly work that goes mostly unnoticed by others, this team of utilities specialists finds their reward in going unnoticed.
“No one flushes a toilet or turns on a shower and jumps for joy,” says Senior Airman Steven Wright. “It's just something that's expected, and necessary, to keep the force strong.”
Wright is one of the nine-member utilities team, all deployed from the 18th Civil Engineer Squadron at Kadena Air Base, Japan.
“The first two priorities in establishing deployed operations are getting a runway open and getting water service established,” explains team leader Tech. Sgt. Thomas Weis. “We're plumbers. We work to keep clean water flowing in and dirty water flowing out - it's just that simple.”
Although the concept may be simple, achieving that goal takes a coordinated effort.
The plumbers keep more than 120,000 gallons of water on hand, drawing sample after sample of the supply to ensure it's safe.
Trip after trip is required to refill the truck, and then transfer that supply into the tanks. The team delivers nearly 30,000 gallons of water every week. Some of those deliveries put them right in the sights of insurgents, but the plumbers get the job done without fail.
One thing Weis discovered after arriving and taking the reigns of the plumbing crew was that there was an entire section of the base that relied exclusively on the water truck deliveries. This was a situation that he intended to change.
Slowly but surely, his team has been installing more than 2,500 feet of pipe across the base. Once completed, the project will provide clean water directly to a 5,500-gallon holding tank, keeping constant supply on-hand for more than 20 base facilities.
The job is not without its challenges. Working in the Iraqi sun, the plumbers have to run the pipe across rocky ground and roadways, and under fences to reach the holding tank.
“When we leave here, I want everyone to have a steady, reliable and safe supply of water,” says Weis. “Without it, people can't focus on their mission, and that could lead to mission failure.”
“Sewage is definitely something that people don't want to think about, but waste from the sinks, showers and latrines has to go somewhere,” says utilities team member Staff Sgt. Sam McCray. “We have also been improving the wastewater system, and the job can get pretty nasty sometimes.”
Recently, the utilities team tackled the challenge of installing a new lift station and wastewater pipe into a more secure part of the base. The lift station moves wastewater to a series of central holding tanks, where it can be pumped out and trucked to treatment facilities.
Once the new lines were installed, McCray tackled the job of removing the old waste lines. “Pulling out old pipe full of wastewater that has been sitting in the Iraqi sun for weeks was pretty much the worst of the projects, but continuing to improve the wastewater system is critical to keeping the force healthy,” he says.
Getting the job done is challenging enough, but in a deployed environment, it takes a lot of innovation and imagination. “Back home, we know what parts we need to complete a project and we go get those parts,” McCray explains. “Here, we have to make due with what's available, and sometimes that means inventing new ways to use the parts we have.”
They credit teamwork and training for their ability to tackle any challenge. “My people get the job done, no matter what it takes,” Weis says. “As long as people don't have to think about us, we know our mission is successful.”