Trenton, N.J., Local 269’s Ed Nowak is among the thousands of IBEW members who have stayed on the job as COVID-19 has spread across North America and around the world. But unlike most of his union brothers and sisters, Nowak found himself fighting the coronavirus pandemic on the other side of the planet.
That’s because he’s not only an electrician, he’s also a Navy reservist.
“It’s an interesting balance,” said Nowak, who has been a member of that branch of the U.S. Armed Forces as well as an IBEW wireman for nearly two decades.
Toward the end of last year, Nowak’s commitment with the reserves took him on a months-long deployment to Guam, the U.S. island territory that’s just about the farthest point west of Hawaii where you can go and still find yourself on American soil.
“Just like the commercials said: Join the Navy and see the world,” Nowak quipped. “I was out there to handle construction and logistics to help move stuff off ships in the South Pacific.”
There, Chief Construction Electrician Nowak was assigned to work with Naval Base Guam’s construction battalions, better known as “Seabees” (from the initials “C.B.”). “I’m what they call a ‘deck-plate leader,’” he said, “similar to a foreman on a job or road supervisor. I’ll still get my hands dirty, fixing broken things and building things.”
While he was on Guam, Nowak was promoted to Senior Chief Construction Electrician. But any celebration surrounding the milestone would end up being short-lived: just as the end of Nowak’s deployment at Naval Base Guam approached, COVID-19 developed into a global pandemic, and the Navy decided to extend Nowak’s South Pacific duties a couple of months longer.
Guam has so far been fortunate compared with other places around the world, having reported only 303 confirmed COVID-19 cases among the island’s 160,000 or so residents. But the island’s four hospitals would be quickly overwhelmed if they had to deal with a more massive outbreak of the disease, and Guam’s remote location makes it difficult to take quick deliveries of already scarce supplies such as masks, gloves and gowns.
So, the Navy, with its large and historic presence on the island, was assigned to build an “expeditionary medical facility” as a backup to Guam’s hospitals.
EMFs are essentially massive field hospital construction kits that get loaded onto ships for deployment around the world as needed. They can gradually become large, functioning facilities, capable of offering care that rivals any city’s hospitals or trauma centers.
But even in the best of times, managing construction of an EMF can be a logistical challenge, and the urgency of the COVID-19 threat further intensified things for Nowak and his team of reservists, who were working alongside active-duty sailors and Marines. “There was lots of stuff we had never done before, or done that way before,” he said. “It gave us a chance to use our problem-solving skills and figure it out.”
For Nowak, whose home state has been one of the hardest hit by COVID-19, building facilities to help deal with potential coronavirus cases was personal. “My uncle got it and passed away,” he said. “It hits home.”
One of Nowak’s more daunting tasks was helping with construction of what’s called an Improved Navy Lighterage System — essentially, a floating bridge and ferry system that’s used to transfer cargo from ship to shore when access to an actual port may not be feasible for one reason or another. “But it’s like an apprenticeship,” he said. “We train to do something and then we do it.”
Fortunately, Nowak was wrapping up his assignment on Guam as this article was being prepared, and he was in transit back to New Jersey where a variety of projects awaits him. And while he hadn’t been scheduled for any long-term deployments, he’ll continue to balance his civilian electrician duties with his service to the reserves for the foreseeable future, reporting to a local Navy facility for the standard commitment of one weekend a month and two weeks a year.
“I must like it,” he said of his dual-service career. “I picked it.”