Home » Features » Cover Stories » Saluting our Soldiers

Saluting our Soldiers

AGC MEMBERS HONOR VETERAN COLLEAGUES WHILE SUPPORTING WARRIOR CANINE CONNECTION, AN AGC CHARITIES’ OPERATION OPENING DOORS PROJECT

BY SHERYL S. JACKSON

Warrior Canine Connection (WCC) is a non-profit organization that helps veterans with invisible injuries like post-traumatic stress disorder return home from combat and learn to reintegrate into society by training service dogs for fellow veterans. In essence, it helps veterans aid other veterans. AGC of America, with the help of its members, raised money to support the renovation of a historic barn to serve as the new national healing quarters for WCC. Construction work on the barn began in early 2019 and once finished will allow the organization to train twice as many service dogs as it currently does. As a result, AGC Charities is raising additional funds to help cover the cost of training the service dogs that will go to veterans with physical and mental wounds.

As part of this fundraising effort, AGC of America asked its members to nominate veteran colleagues as a way to honor their contributions to our country. On the next few pages, you’ll meet several men and women — representing a variety of armed services — who honed their skills while in the military and, in the process, became invaluable construction professionals. A generous thanks to each of them and all the other veterans who have sacrificed so much for our country.

MICHAEL RENNA
U.S. Air Force | Staff Sergeant E-5
Mascaro Construction, Constructors Association of
Western Pennsylvania and Master Builders’ Association of Western Pennsylvania Inc. member

Although many high school boys who are interested in joining the United States Air Force dream of being a pilot, Michael Renna, a senior project manager with Mascaro Construction, was far more interested in the engineering side of service — designing and building runways.

“I was not able to go the Air Force Academy after high school, so I went to the University of Pittsburgh to pursue an engineering degree,” says Renna. “I got off track in school and decided that it was time to join the Air Force.” He says the Air Force gave him the structure, discipline and purpose that he needed at that time in his life.

While he had always thought about building runways, his aptitude tests qualified him for a sought-after position as a precision measuring equipment laboratory specialist at Charleston AFB and eventually served as laboratory quality assurance inspector at Langley AFB. “I was initially responsible for calibrating technology and equipment used to test and repair anything from an aircraft’s speedometer or motor to a weight scale used in the base hospital,” Renna explains. Working in a “clean room” with carefully controlled temperature to protect the equipment was a nice environment, but the need for detail was great to ensure safety of aircraft and personnel.

“Learning how to focus on and pay attention to details is one of the most significant skills I learned in the service,” says Renna. That skill along with how to communicate clearly and how to resolve problems have served him well after he left the service following eight years in the Air Force. He was preparing to begin his third enlistment when a brother who was active duty Air Force died. “His death was a hardship on my family, so I separated from the Air Force and went home.”

Choosing a civilian career was easy for Renna. “I grew up in a construction yard because my father worked for a general contractor for 42 years,” he says. “I worked summers as a helper while I was in high school and as a union laborer later on.”

In addition to learning skills he uses to manage projects today, Renna also points to the military tradition of always training the next person to take your place. “We are all replaceable — in fact, military assignments move most people every three years to a different city and different unit, so you are always teaching someone how to handle your job,” he says. “I enjoy managing, training and mentoring people, and I get a lot of satisfaction watching them move up.”

While he is proud of his accomplishments in the military and in his professional career, he is especially proud of his son’s career in the Air Force. “He was born on an Air Force base, so he always knew he would join,” says Renna. “He’s halfway through his career now — a major who flies KC135 tankers. It is neat to see a son have the same love of flying and the Air Force that his father has.”

BRENT BEST
Army | Second Lieutenant
Suffolk Construction, a member of multiple AGC chapters

“I had no interest in joining the military when I was in high school; instead I was focused on getting a track scholarship to college,” says Brent Best, safety manager, Suffolk Construction. Although his father had served as a Marine in Vietnam, his plans were centered on athletics and college. He got his scholarship to Tiffin University in Ohio but says that he did not feel “fulfilled.”

“I transferred to Marshall University in West Virginia with plans to walk on as a football player,” says Best. Of course, with no scholarship, it suddenly occurred to him that he’d have to pay for school. During that first weekend of orientation, one of the speakers was an Army recruiter. “I’ll always remember him looking at the students sitting there and asking if any of us would like to jump out of airplanes and get a free college education,” he laughs. “I withdrew from college, graduated U.S. Army Ranger School and U.S. Army Airborne School and completed a Special Forces Basic Combat Course.”

After serving from 2002 to 2012 — with tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as a forward observer for Special Forces as well as with the Army National Guard — Best also served one tour as a private security contractor.

He did not immediately go into the construction industry when he returned to civilian life but found himself working in companies as a safety officer as well as in training and education for companies related to construction. Just prior to joining Suffolk, he worked as the director of safety and loss for an environmental company.

Best joined Suffolk in February 2019 and serves as a safety manager on Suffolk’s Marine Wharf project, a 14-story, 320,000-square-foot hotel. He coordinates safety training and development programs and conducts daily project walk-throughs to mitigate potential hazards. He ensures over 150 trade partners comply with OSHA and the company’s own safety protocols.

Learning how to lead and communicate with a variety of people is one lesson learned in the Army. “Whenever I begin a project, I assume that the different trades on-site — sometimes up to 50 at one time — know more about their job than I do, so I talk to them and listen to find out how we can maintain a safe site and address each one of their specific needs,” says Best. “For example, iron workers need to understand fall protection protocols while concrete workers need respirators to protect themselves from silica and asbestos.”

Best also serves as a board member for Suffolk’s employee resource group for Veterans in Construction. In this role, he is leading efforts to recruit military members and veterans for a rewarding career in construction. “Our group helps veterans transition to a workplace by providing advice, directing them to training and education opportunities, and showing how their experience can translate to a civilian job,” says Best. “Seabees can see how their military construction experience leads to a career in construction, but all veterans have developed problem-solving, communication and management skills that can make them successful in construction.” He adds, “We even meet with them before they leave the service to answer questions. We’d love them to join Suffolk, but even if they go with another construction company, that is one more great employee in the industry.”

TOMAS SANCHEZ
U.S. Navy | E-3 Petty Officer
Guido Building Materials, a San Antonio Chapter member

After four years in the Navy ROTC in high school, it was a natural step for Tomas Sanchez to join the U.S. Navy after graduation.  “This was my way to serve my country,” he says, “which I wanted to do to show how grateful I was for all of the opportunities my family has been given.”

Sanchez, now a vice president and senior superintendent at Guido Construction, was in boot camp when the Gulf War began in 1990. “It was scary at first but knowing that I was doing my part to win the war along with others made me proud,” he says. He did a six-month tour on the USS Forrestal Aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean Sea as part of Desert Storm/Desert Shield in 1991. In 1992, he completed a tour around the horn from Florida to California. Throughout his years of service — four in active duty and four in reserves — Sanchez maintained F-18 aircraft.

Although he enjoyed his time in the Navy, he left active duty when he learned that his next assignment would be in Okinawa. “I decided that if I was going to stay in one place, I wanted to be home in San Antonio,” explains Sanchez. He was an aviation structural/hydraulic mechanic — a skill that translates to civilian life, but with 10 Air Force bases or Naval Air Stations in Texas, there is an overabundance of people with similar skills.

“I knew how to read drawings and plans, and I understood how to work as part of a team in the Navy,” says Sanchez. “I also became a good troubleshooter in the military, which is also an important skill for a construction superintendent to have.”

In addition to the technical skills he developed in the Navy, Sanchez says that his military background has also made him a confident leader who knows how to build trust among his team and his subcontractors, and to create long-term relationships that lead to successful projects. “The military teaches you how to make friends and work with new people all of the time,” he says. “I lead by example, respect others’ opinions and always look for new ways to improve our process.”

TOMMY OPLAND
U.S Army/Army National Guard | Staff Sergeant
Modern Railway Systems, a subsidiary of Stacy & Witbeck,
a member of multiple AGC chapters

September 11, 2001 affected all Americans, but Tommy Opland, a senior project manager at Modern Railway Systems, a subsidiary of Stacy & Witbeck, along with three friends decided that they wanted to help ensure that a day like that never happened again.

“The four of us enlisted in the U.S. Army in the middle of our senior year,” explains Opland, promoted through the ranks while serving a year in South Korea and being pinned Sergeant during a 13-month deployment in Iraq from 2005-2006. After completing his active duty enlistment, he and his wife returned to Idaho where he began college and enlisted in the Army National Guard. In 2009 at the age of 26, Opland was promoted to Staff Sergeant. He served domestically in the Idaho Army National Guard from 2006-2010 until he graduated college and made the tough decision to leave the military and begin a career in the construction industry.

Opland served in the cavalry as a scout, or ground reconnaissance. “I could have chosen a position that would have given me more technical skills, but I learned a lot that I apply to my job today,” he says. “I was from a small, rural town in Idaho and was not exposed to a lot of different cultures, personalities and backgrounds that I found in the military.” Seeing how teams of diverse people came together to work as a unit, taught him management and leadership skills that can be applied to any industry, he adds.

The transition to his new career was easy because he grew up around construction — his father and uncle owned small construction companies. “In college, I toyed with the idea of majoring in business, but I really like the idea of being able to look at, touch and see what I’ve accomplished, and construction gives you that,” says Opland. He also likes the team approach and camaraderie that develops on a project because it is similar to military life, he adds.

“I believe construction is a natural fit for veterans because it is mission oriented,” says Opland. “We have one goal — plan, build and complete the project — and troubleshoot along the way because no two days are ever alike.”

ROBERT MORTON
U.S. Marine Corps | Sergeant E-5
RedTeam

“I knew I wanted a career, but I did not want any more school once I graduated high school,” says Robert Morton, now the east coast regional sales director at RedTeam Software, when describing his reason for joining the Marine Corps following his high school graduation in 1997.

“I graduated high school in the midst of the internet boom, so I knew that information technology would be a great career, which is why I chose IT and satellite communications in the Corps,” says Morton. His hands-on training in the field began in San Diego, where he received his first CISCO certification at age 19.

In 2003, he was deployed to Iraq and led a platoon of Marines that served as a headquarters unit. Located on the front lines, Morton’s team was tasked with supporting the infantry and maintaining communications on the ground and between the infantry and the U.S. headquarters. Although the platoon was under fire at times, communication between the infantry and headquarters was never lost. Morton was recognized for his leadership within these efforts with the Navy & Marine Corps Achievement Medal.

“I had thought about staying in the Marine Corps until retirement, but after my tour in Iraq and the birth of my child, I decided it was time to start my civilian career,” says Morton. One of his first jobs was with a company that sold architectural products to contractors. “I enjoyed interacting with customers to help them find what they needed to meet their customers’ needs and building those relationships over the nine years I worked with the company.”

The focus on customers’ needs continued when he joined RedTeam in 2015. His goals go beyond closing deals; instead he focuses on what’s in the best interest of the client and will walk away from a deal if his solution doesn’t provide the best outcome.

This integrity, along with a deep understanding of the technical aspects of his product, has led to his success in the construction management software arena. “I like working with contractors to give them tools that help them be more organized, collect metrics that support good decisions, and create more success for their company,” says Morton.

In addition to the technical training, the ability to build relationships and lead a team, Morton also had a chance to pursue his passion for soccer while serving. The All-Marine Men’s Soccer Team was stationed in San Diego during his time on active duty, and as an experienced soccer player, he was able to spend two years playing at an elite level, traveling and competing with the team. Now, he carries his military soccer experience with him to serve his local community, leading the South Orlando Soccer Club, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing safe and positive team environments for children in the south Orlando and currently serves roughly 1,000 children.

“Joining the Marines was the best decision I ever made,” adds Morton. “It did mean leaving family, and it was not easy work, but military service teaches invaluable lessons about interacting with different personalities, team leadership and service to others.”

LUCAS STOCK
Army National Guard | Sergeant E-5
Landwehr Construction, an AGC of Minnesota member

Having a father who served in the Vietnam War, a grandfather in World War II, along with numerous aunts and uncles who also served in the military, inspired Lucas (Luke) Stock, a senior estimator and project manager for Landwehr Construction, to enlist in the Army National Guard after high school in 1997 and to serve until 2005.

“Joining the Army National Guard was a win-win for me personally and professionally,” says Stock. “I have always been interested in building things — helping my father build an addition to our house when I was four, even though I don’t know how much I helped, to building a bench out of scrap pieces of lumber when I was about eight years old.” In addition to his training as a carpentry and masonry specialist in the military, Stock also appreciated the tuition support following his service.

He served with Charlie Company 142nd Engineering Battalion. During his time in the service, Stock attended St. Cloud Technical Community College and obtained his associates degree in drafting & estimating. He continued his education at MSUM Moorhead, graduating with a Bachelor of Science in construction management.

Stock served in Iraq from 2003 to 2004. During his time there he completed numerous projects as an assistant squad leader and his battalion played the main part in reconstructing the Air Base LSA Anaconda in Balad, Iraq.

“One of the greatest benefits to military service is the leadership skills you develop,” says Stock. “You learn how to work as part of team and how to lead and support others.” One way that he continues to teach and support others in the industry is his role as a mentor to company interns, sharing his knowledge about individual projects and the industry as a whole.

After 22 years in construction, with 16 of those years at Landwehr, Stock explains why he enjoys his career, “This is not a job where you watch the clock because every day is different with new challenges. You focus on the final goal, not the time of day.”

BRIANNE GRACE
U.S. Air Force | Captain
Whitesell-Green, an Alabama AGC member

“I grew up in a very small town in Illinois and wanted to see more of the world once I graduated high school,” says Brianne (Bri) Grace, a project manager with Whitesell-Green. “I joined the Air Force ROTC and went to University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign for my civil and environmental engineering degree.”

Civil engineering was a natural choice for Grace because she loved building. “I was helping my dad build custom homes when I was 14 years old, and I loved it,” she says. “The problem-solving during construction, learning how to think outside the box to make something work, and the miracle of seeing something built from the ground up was wonderful.”

Following graduation from college, Grace was commissioned in 2002. She served three years as a civil engineering squadron officer at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. While stationed there she led an Operation Iraqi Freedom I deployment to Baghdad International Airport, Iraq, to support runway repair/maintenance missions and then spent three years as a RED HORSE (Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers) civil engineer at Hurlburt Field, Florida. While serving in Florida, Grace was deployed to Operation Iraqi Freedom II, traveling all over Iraq, leading design and construction efforts for runways, roadways and facilities.

Grace separated after six years of active duty and returned to the construction industry as a civilian. She worked for three different companies and works primarily on projects located on military installations. “My training as an officer prepared me to hire, manage, train and lead people,” she says. “I work on projects that might have 40 different subcontractors, and my experience enables me to communicate easily and get my point across.” Because she’s been in their place, she understands their challenges and can work with them to troubleshoot and find solutions, she adds.

“I think construction is a great industry for veterans,” says Grace. “I interact with a lot of lieutenants and captains who are inspectors on my jobsites, and they all ask me about working in construction after active duty. I encourage them to consider it because there are already a lot of ex-troops that have chosen construction and are happy they did.”

KENNETH MILLER
U.S. Marine Corps | Sergeant E-5
Rew Materials, a Kansas City Chapter and
Master Builders of Iowa member

About two years after he graduated high school, Kenneth Miller was trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. “My first plan was firefighting,” he says. “I got an associate’s degree in fire science and volunteered as a firefighter.”

While Miller was volunteering with other firefighters, he noticed that veterans — of all ages — seemed more mature and experienced than others. In 2014, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and was selected as a military working dog handler. “This was a very competitive position that required a try-out and several months of on-the-job training to learn how to work with and care for the dog,” he says.

Miller and his dog supported operations in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East during his five years in the service. “We were responsible for finding explosive devices on security patrols in the areas our troops were operating,” he explains. His dog reached her end of service before Miller was discharged and was adopted by her prior handler who was no longer on active duty. “I spent the last year and a half of service training other dog teams to deploy by setting up scenarios they would encounter and preparing them for their missions.”

Following his discharge, Miller considered a number of different fields, but realized that he would enjoy working in a construction-related field just as his father, who works for a building materials manufacturer and his grandfather, who worked for a lumber distributor, had done.

“It is difficult to make a transition from military to civilian life because you do feel like an outsider in many professions since they are so different from military life,” explains Miller. “The construction industry is a similar environment — it is critical to pay attention to details, days are structured with deadlines to meet, and there is always a final goal that is well-defined.”

Miller joined Rew Materials this year and is in the training program. “I am working in outside sales, which I love,” he says. “I did not want to sit behind a desk all day, and I get to go to different jobsites, communicate with different types of people throughout the day and help find the best products for a client’s needs.”

Even if a veteran doesn’t have construction experience, Miller says that the construction industry offers a lot of jobs that use skills developed in the military — communication, work ethic, attention to detail, organization and a focus on accomplishing a task. He adds, “It is a culture shock when you leave military service. In fact, many of my friends have had trouble finding a career. I have recommended construction to these friends and others who ask about it.”  

MARKO MARCELLO/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM