CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --
A typical layout of your average Air Force base contains gates that stand as entry points, offices Airmen work in, dormitories housing the first-timers, and hangars protecting our essential aircraft.
Here at Cannon, these principal structures are built and maintained by a single unit. The heavy operations structures shop, assigned to the 27th Special Operations Civil Engineer Squadron, manages every building under Cannon’s control, a responsibility requiring a team of skillful professionals.
The men and women that make up the shop are professionally trained in more than just woodworking. Acting as locksmiths, carpenters, masons and metalsmiths, they have the necessary skills to take on the challenges that come with keeping a base operational.
“It can be hard for people that aren’t used to construction to get into this job,” said Tech. Sgt. Patrick Smith, 27th SOCES structural technician, as he sanded a piece of plywood to a smooth finish. “I spent half my life as a locksmith, so it was easier to get into it. But the people that come in with no history in this setting take some time to adjust, and we have to be able to help them.”
While new structures and projects are an important part of the job, it is really the tasks to repair or renew certain items that are the bread and butter of the structure shop Airmen.
“Upkeep is 75 percent of what we do,” Smith said, applying wood glue, joining two pieces of his project together. “We’ll fix a broken tile, a leaky roof, or maybe a broken door handle. If it has a building number on it, our commander owns it and it’s our job to keep it fixed.”
When a structures technician heads to a job site, they have to keep multiple things in mind such as the necessary tools, safety requirements, and how they want to fix the problem before them.
“We don’t have technical orders in our job,” Smith said. “Our job is 100 percent in our hands. It’s up to us to find the measurements, get the tools, learn to use them, and craft the product. It gives us creative liberty to solve an issue.”
The planning stages for fixing a problem start as soon as a work order is submitted. Once a possible solution is found, or at least thought of, the Airmen assigned to the project head to the actual site. Job sites can be at Cannon, Chavez housing or even out at Melrose Air Force Range.
“That’s the nice thing about this job,” said Airman 1st Class David Shkiryak, 27th SOCES structural apprentice, as he added more pieces to the same project. “It’s not constrained. You’re not stuck in one room, in one building, in one office. Different days can bring different jobs.”
That type of variety and diverse experience help when the structures Airmen go down range.
In a deployed location, they are the ones that set up tents, barriers and worksites for deployed Air Commandos to be stationed at. This skillset makes structural Airmen a necessity, so the shop cycles through deployed members regularly.
“It can be a challenge sometimes,” Shkiryak said, making wood putty by putting sawdust on the glue, making the bond seamless. “If a big task comes up and it’s a shop of one technical sergeant and a few Airmen, it can be stressful, even overwhelming. But we get it done.”
Factors like heights, structural integrity and working with power tools can put Airmen in dangerous situations. The career field has multiple safety precautions the squadron has to keep in mind at all times.
“We have to watch out for each other,” Smith said. “We work in a job that we get to be creative, but we also need to be careful. It can be as big as guiding a crane into the proper spot so we can get to the problem, or as small as helping someone hit a nail.”
No matter the size of the job, the structures shop focuses on safety and efficiency. The quiet professionals go where they need to go, fixing what has to be fixed, and leaving behind a finished job.
Smith inspects Shkiryak’s work by lifting up the finished piece, a large photo frame. Checking the corners, running his hands along the sides to check for impurities, he comments on the quality of the work, impressed by how smooth the joints are. The frames were built to decorate the building, but the photos they would house weren’t the only display. The quality of the products themselves were a silent testament to the work that a single structures Airman could accomplish in one day.
“At the end of the day,” Smith said, a smile on his face as he set down the finished photo frames, “We’re here to make this place better.”
The ability of the Airmen from this shop to create and repair using basic supplies can best be described by St. Francis of Assisi. “He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”