Pvt. Jessica Equihua slipped on a pair of oversized gloves, dropped a mask over her face, fired up a welding torch and let the sparks fly.
While others in her Fort Lewis-based platoon watched Tuesday, she slowly welded two small metal plates together at a 90-degree angle.
In a few months, she could be asked to use her new skills on a Humvee or other military vehicles in Iraq.
“It’s good to learn this stuff now instead of getting over there and not know when we need it,” the 20-year-old automated logistical specialist said. “Plus it’s fun. And maybe with some practice, you know, I could be good at it.”
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Equihua is one of about 75 members of Fort Lewis’ 602nd Forward Support Company receiving a crash course in welding this week at Pacific Welding Supplies’ Auburn location. The Tacoma-based company agreed to train the soldiers at no cost after a noncommissioned officer from the unit contacted them, saying more of his company’s members needed basic welding skills ahead of their deployment to Iraq in September.
Only four members of the company’s maintenance platoon knew how to weld, and two were expected to be assigned to a different location in Iraq when the company deploys, said Sgt. Chris Anderson, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the company’s welding shop.
Each day, 10 to 15 soldiers attend the nine-hour course, which alternates between PowerPoint presentations and practicing various techniques, such as stick welding and plasma cutting. The company is giving each soldier a pair of gloves, safety glasses and a guidebook that offers quick instructions on welding under various circumstances to bring to Iraq.
“When we heard the troops were looking for our help, we jumped all over it,” said Kelly Hopkins, a Tacoma resident who handles government sales for Pacific Welding Supplies. “It’s really a part of giving back to the guys who are defending us.”
The 602nd will deploy in support of the 201st Battlefield Surveillance Brigade and work on the maintenance of the unit’s military vehicles. Much of the welding work will come when soldiers want to tinker with modifications to the body of a vehicle for possible safety or tactical enhancements, like adding a sniper screen or extra armor for taller soldiers standing in a gunner’s hatch.
This week’s lessons are the first time most members of the company have handled welding equipment, but the course was beneficial even to the company’s most experienced welder.
“I kind of came in and said, ‘I know this. I don’t really need to pay too much attention,’ ” said Anderson, a 29-year-old Chicago native who has been welding for four years. “But right away, I was like, ‘Wow, they never taught me all of this.’
“But they really taught me a lot today. It’s really worth it.”
Scott Fontaine: 253-320-4758