Chicago is probably one of the last places that come to mind when you think of the U.S. Navy and “anchors aweigh.” However, the service branch operates an innovative, one-of-a-kind naval training facility located just north of the “Windy City,” where it helps our uniformed men and women in their careers on the high seas.
“The mission of Recruit Training Command [RTC] Great Lakes is to prepare new sailors to assume 21st century shipboard responsibilities in the service of our country,” notes Captain Jake Washington, commanding officer of Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) Midwest.
Underscoring the importance of the RTC boot camp facilities, the Navy initiated a 12-year, $770 million recapitalization project. “One thing I sought to impress on the civilian contractors who helped us design and build this project is that we’re working together to provide solutions that directly relate to our national defense,” comments Washington.
The project is unique in a number of ways. For instance, it represents the Navy’s commitment to fund multiple buildings constructed over multiple years as a single major project. “Normally, the Navy does one project at a time,” NAVFAC spokesperson Bill Couch points out. “The initial trigger for the recapitalization was the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, initiated in 1993 to eliminate old, duplicate and/or unnecessary military facilities,” explains Washington. At the time, he adds, the Navy had three recruit training centers: a base in San Diego, Calif., another in Orlando, Fla., and the Great Lakes facility, which had substantial surrounding acreage that made expansion feasible and attractive. “[Conversely] the San Diego and Orlando bases were constrained by residential and industrial growth that, over time, encroached upon their perimeters.”
RTC Great Lakes has a unique origin. It was the very first Naval training center dedicated to prepare new sailors. It graduated its first class of 300 in 1911 (previously, standard practice involved training new recruits on their ships). During World War II, more than one million sailors trained at Great Lakes. Throughout the Cold War years, the base underwent a series of renovations and new construction, but by the end of the century, base barracks dating back to the 1960s had significant structural, plumbing, climate control and space deficiencies that adversely affected recruits’ health and welfare. Also, some drill halls originally built during World War II and intended to last only five years had remained in continuous use.
Washington, born and educated in the region, helped initiate the RTC recapitalization program as a lieutenant commander on the staff of Great Lakes’ resident officer in charge of construction. He was subsequently reassigned but returned to command the project, from 2008 to its on-schedule completion in July 2010. (An interesting point: on-schedule completion is a highly unusual occurrence in any construction project, especially one of this magnitude.)
“The strategic vision was to, over time, systematically replace old buildings with new construction as part of an overall campus design to more efficiently train sailors,” Washington explains. “That resulted in the commitment to fund ongoing work over a 12-year period, as opposed to funding one building at time.”
You don’t often see a sustained investment involving this many facilities in one location, he adds.
“There are three major, necessary on-campus activities: house recruits, train them in various activities at various locations throughout the day, and feed them,” Washington says. “The layout of the old campus, which was basically a long narrow strip, was very inefficient. We determined that sailors were spending too much time marching from one building – which we refer to here as ‘ships’ – to another. In some instances, distances were greater than a mile. Acquiring an additional 48 acres from a neighboring U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs property enabled us to develop an L-shaped campus that more effectively integrated ‘ship’ locations as to where sailors would be at various points along their training. This not only eliminated unproductive time and improved training efficiency, we also found it significantly reduced the high rate of stress fractures and physical ailments directly attributed to the long marches.”
Project groundbreaking took place in 1998, with Six-Sigma processes deployed to design and build modern, sustainable and energy-efficient facilities. An outdoor track was completed two years later. In 2001, the first “ship,” the USS Mason, was completed. It was named after the World War II destroyer DE 529, the first Navy ship with a predominantly African-American crew. Namesake Ensign Newton Henry Mason died following aerial combat against Japanese forces in the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942. He posthumously received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Today, the campus consists of state-of-the-art facilities for the training, feeding, and housing of new recruits during their eight-week indoctrination into Navy life. These include 14 barracks, each with its own dining (galley) and computer classroom areas, three drill halls and five administrative and training buildings. Each 172,000-square-foot barracks accommodates up to 1,056 recruits and their drill commanders. An open design and movable furniture allows for quick reconfigurations for in-building training. The in-barracks galleys replace two stand-alone centralized galleys that were 40 years old.
The campus design also includes distinct functional areas, such as a public zone for visitors and weekly graduation ceremonies, and a centralized area for training, medical and administrative activities. The RTC recapitalization also follows all current anti-terrorism/force protection construction standards to increase the safety of the sailors and all pedestrian and vehicular traffic.
Approximately two buildings a year were erected within a specified area, or camp. Civilian contractors, including a service-disabled-veteran-owned business, performed all construction work. “We first built one new camp from the ground up, then worked through the other camps, taking down an old building completely and then constructing its replacement,” says Couch.
The drill halls encompass 58,000 square feet and accommodate a variety of training activities and assemblies. The newest – the Atlantic Fleet Drill Hall, completed in 2007 – is certified as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold by the U.S. Green Building Council. “It’s now a federal mandate to adhere to LEED guidelines wherever possible,” Washington points out. “In fact, we previously received Bronze certification, and we are currently only one of two Naval facilities that have been awarded Gold certification.”
This drill hall’s namesake, the U.S. Atlantic Fleet (now designated U.S. Fleet Forces Command) was established in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt to organize, train and equip U.S. Naval forces. A year earlier, Roosevelt authorized funding to establish the Great Lakes Naval Station.
Perhaps the most unique building in this considerable undertaking is Battle Stations 21, a 157,000-square-foot structure containing a 210-foot long, ¾-scale mock up of a Navy destroyer sitting dockside in a water-filled moat. “We employed theme park-style special effects to replicate real-life naval emergencies to test recruits on a variety of firefighting, flood control and damage control skills,” describes Washington. “One scenario is based on the terrorist bombing of the USS Cole and is complete with all the sights, sounds and smells actually experienced. As it’s as realistic as possible, it’s a very effective way to train a group of people in teamwork and smart reaction to conditions they may encounter.”
The bidding process represents yet another unique feature of the recapitalization project. “Typically the federal government had a ‘low bid wins, policy. That’s now changed to a policy under which we can also have the ability to evaluate what kind of ‘best value’ a contractor can bring to a project, even if they have higher costs,” Washington explains. “That has helped us forge partnerships with a cadre of civilian contractors that focus on the mission – in this case, producing the highest quality trained sailors. Another thing I strived to impress upon all our civilian partners was that we are all taxpayers and patriots working to achieve the same goals.”
ON BUDGET, ON TIME
That last point helps explain why such a lengthy and complex project – one that involved multiple building construction using innovative new building techniques – came in more or less on budget and on time.
Of course, in a 12-year project, at some point the earliest built facilities will inevitably exhibit wear and tear just as everything else is winding down. Washington explains how that issue was addressed: “We anticipated that just as the project would near completion, we’d have to evaluate updating some of the earlier structures. To date, eight RTC ‘ships’ have been successfully rotated out for maintenance or energy savings – some more than once – and returned to full service. The process is working well, with several hundred thousand dollars of documented savings in utilities cost avoidance. We anticipate even greater savings as the initiative matures.”
With the mission completed, Washington is soon leaving for a new assignment. But he can rest assured that the RTC Great Lakes recapitalization project, which occurred in difficult times (military focus in Iraq and Afghanistan, economic pressures, declining budgets), will provide each new Naval recruit the necessary training and the readiness required to serve his or her country.