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August 2012

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Wireman Lands (Missile Defense) Job in Paradise

When Santa Rosa, Calif., Local 551 member Steven Benjamin was laid off last Christmas Eve, it didn't look like he'd be taking a vacation anytime soon. Four months later, he was working on a Pacific Island, spending his free time scuba diving, snorkeling and biking around a bona fide tropical paradise.

Benjamin's journey started when Bechtel Corp., a contracting firm operating on the Kwajalein atoll in the Marshall Islands, placed a general call for an electrician with at least five years' journeyman experience and merchant mariner's documentation. A former merchant marine with 30 years' electrical experience, Benjamin fit the bill.

The jobsite, the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, is where the U.S. Army tests its offensive and defensive missile weapons. The temporary assignment called to overhaul one of two personnel ferries, critical for getting mission specialists and maintenance workers from Kwajalein to one of the other islands on which operations take place.

"They wanted jobs done right, on time," says Benjamin. "They didn't want to take a chance on unqualified people."

Bechtel fast-tracked Benjamin's trip, and after a week of form faxing and credential gathering, he was on his way across the Pacific Ocean to Kwajalein.

During his first week, Benjamin tackled a problematic marine battery charger that made batteries overcharge, some to the point of explosion. In one afternoon, Benjamin found that a faulty heat sensor, loose electrical buss and a grounded buss bolt caused the issue, fixing what the local electrical shop could not in four months.

"That impressed the marine manager and a few other people as well," says John Hammond, a retired member of the pipefitter's union in charge of the ferry's overhaul.

Benjamin's main work was overhauling the catamaran Pvt Sorenson, an eight-year-old vessel that runs on underwater jet engines. The design, which puts two small hulls underwater at opposite sides of the boat rather than a single-hull design, allows for better stability and speed on water than most ferries. His main duties included rebuilding jet drives and diesel engines, as well as replacing one engine that exploded.

The Marshall Islands, a collection of small islands and ring-shaped coral islands called atolls, are about 2,000 miles northeast of Australia. Captured by the Japanese in World War II, they were liberated by Allied Forces in 1943. Since then, the Islands have been used by the United States for missile testing. Because of the nature of what goes on there, the Islands have a unique limitation: the only people who can visit are those who are either directly sponsored by Marshallese residents, or have business with the U.S. Army.

In his down time, Benjamin enjoyed biking around Kwajalein, snorkeling in waters with up to 100-foot visibility, and scuba diving through the old World War II shipwrecks.

Benjamin's time at the atoll ended last month. Disappointed to leave, he said he is happy to have had the chance to meet new friends, explore the ocean and experience one of the most beautiful, isolated places in the world.

"It's a really nice place," Benjamin says, "I'm hoping I can come back again."

Benjamin's not the only one glad for the opportunity. For his local back home, to have their group represented by one of their own so far away is an honor.

"Steve's a very good electrician," says Local 551 Business Representative Denise Soza. "We stand proud behind our members and our training, and I believe we are the best of the best."


Santa Rosa, Calif., Local 551 member Steven Benjamin spent three months in the remote Pacific Marshall Islands, home of the U.S. Army's ballistic missile testing site.

IBEW Students Earn Union Plus Scholarships

This year, the Union Plus Scholarship Program has awarded $11,000 in scholarships to 10 students with IBEW connections.

The winners hail from across the country, with goals to further their education. Union Plus Scholarships are awarded to students based on academic ability, social awareness, financial need and appreciation of the labor movement.

Caitlin Eckert, whose father, Lawrence, is a member of Washington, D.C., Local 26, received a $2,000 scholarship. She is working on her master's degree at Loyola University, and is pursuing a career as a school counselor.

Dimitre Nitchev won a $1,000 scholarship, and plans to become an orthopedist. His father, Valkan, is also a member of Washington, D.C., Local 26.

Devon Jedamski was awarded $1,000. A second-year Union Plus award recipient, he is pursuing an aeronautical and mechanical engineering degree. His father, James, is a member of Rochester, N.Y., Local 86.

Kelsey Potter, whose father, Gary, is a member of Huntington, W.Va., Local 317, received a $1,000 scholarship. She plans to major in English and teach writing.

Lutitia Ferguson won a $1,000 scholarship, and plans to pursue a career as a psychologist. Her father, Terry, is a member of Louisville, Ky., Local 369.

Michael Tomaszewski, whose father, Frank, is a member of Alton, Ill., Local 649, was awarded a $500 scholarship. He is training to become a union worker.

Hayley Grzych received a $1,000 scholarship and plans to pursue a career as a pediatric surgeon. Her father, Douglas, is a member of Gary and Hammond, Ind., Local 697.

Harry Shenberger III, whose father, Harry, is a member of Bethlehem, Pa., Local 1600, received a $500 scholarship. He is studying electrical technology and plans to work alongside his father as an IBEW member.

Benjamin Magyar was awarded a $2,000 scholarship, and currently plans to be a nurse practitioner. His father, Joseph, is a member of Milwaukee, Wis., Local 2150.

Alaina Warren, whose father, James, is a member of Middleton, Mass., Local 2321, received a $1,000 scholarship. She is studying English and plans to be a teacher.