DVIDS – News – 215th Engineering Installation Squadron: A Legacy of Service

PAINE FIELD, Wash. – The Washington Air National Guard’s 215th Engineering Installations Squadron operated at Paine Field in Everett from 1953 until its inactivation in 2013, and its legacy dates back to 1942. “We had exceptional people with a lot of engineering expertise in communications,” said retired Col. William Canavan, who commanded the unit from 1989 to 1995 and again from 1999 to 2001.

According to a statement on the unit’s history, “The mission of the 215th EIS was to train, equip, and deploy teams to Expeditionary Air Force missions, emergency response teams (federal and state federations) in support of the Total Force effort, and to serve its members around the to deploy Globus and install communications equipment—towers, poles and cables, ducts and ducts, equipment racks, and local area network distribution cables—for an Air Force that uses a significant amount of computers and networks.”

The roots of the 215th date back to World War II, when it was first formed in 1942 as the Army’s 94th Signal Company, 59th Service Group at Will Rogers Field, Oklahoma. Redesignated as the 109th Signal Company, the unit sailed for Australia In the fall of 1943, he took part in the campaigns in New Guinea and the southern Philippines. After the war, the unit was relocated to Yang Dung Po, Korea, according to the unit’s history.

Over the next few years, the unit was redesignated several times and activated for federal service in the Korean conflict, with plans to relocate to Moulines, France. According to the unit’s history, “This movement never happened because less than four months later, on February 1, 1953, the 610th was retired from active service and returned to government control. On the same day it was redesignated 215 Communications Construction Squadron. The unit was reorganized with a slight reduction in personnel before being redesignated for the fifth time as 215 Ground Engineering and Electronics Installation Agency (GEEIA) on 1 January 1959.”

With a reorganization of the GEEIA function by the Luftwaffe, the unit was redesignated again on 1 April 1970 as the Electronics Installation Squadron and in 1972 an Electrical Engineering Cell was added. The 215th’s training facilities occupied 11.5 acres at Paine Field. In 1982 the unit was redesignated the 215th Engineering Installation Squadron, which it retained for the remainder of its 31-year existence.

The 215th was an integral part of the fiber optic backbone installation for the United States West Coast and Hawaii National Guard. The unit helped transport radar equipment from Galena Air Force Station in Alaska to Kokee Air Force Station on the island of Kauai, said retired Chief Master Sgt. Greg Gessell, who served with the unit from 1985 to 2013.

The unit has been assigned to missions around the world including South Korea, Australia and Thailand. In return, members of the Royal Thai Navy traveled to Paine Field for training with the 215th. “It was the first time the Royal Thai Navy had sent people to the United States for training at its own expense,” Gessell said. “We trained them to install and maintain fiber optic and copper cabling. We would do that every two years for two weeks.”

The 215th also made a significant difference in support of active duty forces. “The 215th provided exceptional service to the active-duty Air Force,” Canavan said.

Canavan had served as a Navy Flight Officer during the Vietnam War before transferring to the Washington Air Guard’s 262nd Combat Communications Squadron in Bellingham, Washington. Eventually he trained as a staff officer for computer communications and served in units in California and New York. Canavan returned to Washington State in December 1989 to assume command of the 215th from Lt. to take over Col. Steve Peterson.

Collective calls were held in vehicle maintenance. Canavan established an annual holiday slideshow presentation, set to music by Mannheim Steamroller, that highlighted the unit’s achievements and goals. “It set the tone for a team that knew what was going on, what we were doing and their role,” Canavan said.

According to Canavan, many 215th members have held civilian jobs in telecommunications companies and contributed their civilian expertise to operations and drills.

Retired Lt. Col. Dan Flack, who joined the 215th after active duty in the mid-1980s and served as the engineering officer in charge, said he was impressed by the exchange of ideas that took place among members of the unit. “We’ve had managers from Weyerhaeuser, Microsoft, US West, and seeing all these types of leaders and managers has really helped me a lot, both on the military and civilian sides. I’ve seen so many approaches to how people approach things.”

As of 1994, the 215th was on a rotation of airborne expeditionary forces in the Middle East. Chief Master Sgt. Robert Cliatt and two other members of the 215th traveled to Saudi Arabia to participate in a Pentagon-led survey to prepare for the transition from tactical gear to desktop networking systems. Nine Airmen then went to Saudi Arabia to help set up support facilities. After the crew arrived, Canavan said, “Senior Master Sgt. Ralph Jackson called me in the middle of the night and said, “Sir, I have a problem. There’s a Colonel over here and he says he doesn’t need the Air National Guard in his AOR and we can start packing.” After calling the National Guard office, Canavan was told the crew could stay. The 215th repeatedly returned to Saudi Arabia thereafter. Canavan transitioned as project manager.

Over the years, Middle East deployments have included Eskan Village, Saudi Arabia; Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia; Al Udeid Air Force Base, Qatar; and at several locations in Iraq, including Kirkuk, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Most of these missions came about as a result of requests for technical installation assistance from the Army, while missions like Al Udeid and Eskan involved the construction of combined air operations centers, according to Gessell. The unit’s most recent deployments were to Kandahar and Bagram Air Force Bases in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

In addition, EIS members participated in Operation Joint Endeavor in support of the mission in Kosovo and Operation DEEP FREEZE in New Zealand.

The unit also supported domestic operations such as assisting civilian authorities during the World Trade Organization civil unrest in 1999, counter-narcotics work in Skagit County, Washington and on the Canadian border, and assisting the Washington State Department of Natural Resources in fighting wildfires.

Veterans of the 215th emphasize the camaraderie they experienced in the unit. “We’re very close,” Gessell said. “We had our own recruiter recruiting from Seattle to Bellingham, so most of the people came from that community.” The proximity made it easy for the 215th members to gather for social occasions outside of work. Members also met for restaurant and dining out and attended Hometown Heroes events sponsored by the American Legion Post in Snohomish.

“The 215th was family,” said Senior Master Sgt. Troy Carle, 194th Wing, who recalled attending the unit as a child and attending picnics when his mother, Master Sgt. Karen Schilling, was serving in the unit.

In 2006, the Washington Air National Guard brought various units, including the 215th, into the new 194th Regional Support Wing. Some geographically separated units were relocated, and some former combat communications units switched to cyberspace operations missions.
Amid continued restructuring and resource allocation within the new wing, the 215th mission came to an end.

The unit was officially deactivated on October 1, 2013, and the deactivation flag rolling ceremony was held at Camp Murray on November 3, 2013. Lt. Col. Ron Jimmerson, the unit’s final commander, described the unit’s history. “As sad as this day is, we are truly here to celebrate your legacy and history as a family,” said Col. Jill Lannan, commander of the 194th Regional Support Wing, in a remark at the ceremony. The unit was named 2013 Washington State Outstanding Squadron of the Year.

While some were retiring or separating from the Air National Guard at the time, many chose to remain and transfer to other Air Guard units. Those who stayed were typically high achievers in their guard careers, Gessell said. The new members’ units “saw the value in the people who came here,” Gessell said. “The legacy is people who are still excelling and still making progress in their careers.”

Date of recording: 03/25/2022
Release Date: 03/25/2022 11:09
Story ID: 417163
Location: EVERETT, WA, USA

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