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Airman 1st Class Michael Scordato, a 35th Civil Engineer Squadron readiness apprentice, explains the uses for different types of biological- and chemical-detecting equipment to the Curtin evaluation team, including Col. Gus Elliott Jr., center front, and civilian Ian Smith, at Misawa Air Base, Japan, on Thursday.

Airman 1st Class Michael Scordato, a 35th Civil Engineer Squadron readiness apprentice, explains the uses for different types of biological- and chemical-detecting equipment to the Curtin evaluation team, including Col. Gus Elliott Jr., center front, and civilian Ian Smith, at Misawa Air Base, Japan, on Thursday. (Jennifer H. Svan /S&S)

Airman 1st Class Michael Scordato, a 35th Civil Engineer Squadron readiness apprentice, explains the uses for different types of biological- and chemical-detecting equipment to the Curtin evaluation team, including Col. Gus Elliott Jr., center front, and civilian Ian Smith, at Misawa Air Base, Japan, on Thursday.

Airman 1st Class Michael Scordato, a 35th Civil Engineer Squadron readiness apprentice, explains the uses for different types of biological- and chemical-detecting equipment to the Curtin evaluation team, including Col. Gus Elliott Jr., center front, and civilian Ian Smith, at Misawa Air Base, Japan, on Thursday. (Jennifer H. Svan /S&S)

Airman 1st Class Brandon LaSmith suits up in protective gear designed to seal out any known chemical or biological agent.

Airman 1st Class Brandon LaSmith suits up in protective gear designed to seal out any known chemical or biological agent. (Jennifer H. Svan /S&S)

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — The questions were tough and off the cuff.

The three team members who will determine the best civil engineer squadron in the Air Force didn’t just nod their heads and take notes while touring 35th Civil Engineer Squadron facilities here Thursday.

They quizzed airmen and their supervisors on equipment, procedures, training and more.

“If they’re the best, they’ll be able to handle it,” said evaluator Ian Smith, a GS-15 civilian who heads up the Air Force’s Housing Privatization Division.

Smith, Col. Gus Elliott Jr. and Chief Master Sgt. Wayne Quattrone II made a brief appearance in the Pacific region last week, stopping at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, on Tuesday and Misawa on Thursday. Up for grabs is the prestigious Society of American Military Engineers Curtin Award. Six bases are vying in two categories: Misawa goes against Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., and Ramstein Air Base, Germany, in units with 550 or more members; among the small squadrons, Andersen is up against Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., and Charleston Air Force Base, S.C.

The six made the final cut after submitting written packages describing their achievements in six areas, from how they preserve the base’s infrastructure to innovations in training and equipping deploying troops. The Curtin award, named after Maj. Gen. Robert H. Curtin, the Air Force director of Civil Engineering from 1963 to 1968, is the only civil engineer award that also includes a site visit. The evaluators, all with years of experience and education in the Air Force civil engineering field, are looking for “the proof in the pudding.”

“On the in-brief,” said Elliott, the commander of Headquarters Air Force Civil Engineer Support Agency at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., “I usually say this is like Internet dating. We have a written submission that says they have a sparkling personality, are witty and they can dance. We are actually coming out to verify that.”

Each squadron has the team for one day, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. “We leave it up to the organization … to show us and take us wherever they want,” Elliot said. “We only ask that we reserve the right to ask questions.”

And fire away they did. Misawa’s civil engineer readiness flight airmen had to be on their toes Thursday: After listening to a detailed presentation on biological- and chemical-detecting tools, Elliott wanted to know what happens if something breaks. Some things can be fixed in-house while others are sent back to the States for repair, an airman answered.

“Do you know how to run all the equipment?” Elliott asked Master Sgt. Brian Vodney, the flight’s superintendent.

Some, Vodney, replied, but not all, since some were purchased while he was deployed.

“How long have you been back?” Elliott quizzed further.

“I got back six months ago,” Vodney said.

The evaluators didn’t reveal their opinions — it was hard to tell if they were impressed or disappointed. But they said it was an honor to spend time with “the cream of the crop.”

“We’re happy to be here,” said Quattrone, chief for enlisted matters at the Pentagon’s Air Force Office of the Civil Engineer.

While they will score a set of criteria, Elliott said this stage of the competition is more subjective.

“In a general sense, it really is the experience, what they chose to show us, how that all went, then trying to decide which unit was the best,” he said. To be the best, “it takes great leadership, great support from the base and a work force that loves what they’re doing and is excited about telling you about it.”

The team was to evaluate Ramstein on Tuesday. The winners should be announced by the end of the month; an awards ceremony in the States follows in late February.

“Those were really tough questions,” Vodney said later. It was hard not to be nervous since “this is a biggie,” he said of the Curtin award.

author picture
Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

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