“I tried to join the military – every branch,” said Tad Wendler, from Olympia, Wash., while striking a gas metal arc torch inside the Stryker battle damage repair facility at Camp As Sayliyah, Qatar. “But now I’m serving in another way.”
“I’m protecting soldier’s lives,” said Wendler, a welder responsible for ensuring the integrity of armored combat vehicles for troops on the battlefield. “I cannot be out there with them, but I’m doing my best to ensure they return home safely.”
Wendler, 27, was raised on a 50-acre farm in Rainier, Wash., a 40-minute drive south of Olympia. He helped care for 20 head of cattle, three horses and endless crops. His grandfather started to teach him arc welding at around eight years old. While fixing farm equipment, discussions often led to stories of Army service in the Pacific during World War II.
Wendler hoped to join the military as a student at Rainier High School, where he took his first formal welding class. He visited recruiters for service in the Marine Corps, Army, Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard, but persistent hip problems kept disqualifying him for the physical demands of recruit training.
Frustrated, he started taking classes at South Puget Sound Community College, a public college in Olympia, and then later enrolled in nearby Centralia Community College for a one-year welding certification.
Wendler has fused and fabricated bridges, barges and construction equipment. For nearly four years, he repaired and built heavy machinery in coal mines. He refined a more decorative touch by working on chairs for restaurants and stainless steel showers for beach houses, as well as various customization projects.
While earning a living as a welder in rural Washington, he often accepted side jobs fixing irrigation pipes, dump trucks and dozers at his parent’s farm in Rainier. He eventually shifted his focus to off-road vehicle fabrication. Wendler has built several rock buggies for friends and family, to include his mother.
His most recent off-road masterpiece blended a 1985 Toyota pickup body with a 1953 Jeep Willys hood and grill. He dropped in a GM V6 Vortec engine and constructed a suspension out of various parts. The external metal roll cage represents his favorite fabrication work.
“Welding is one of the most stable jobs in this economy,” says Wendler. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook suggests plenty of job opportunities for welders with little or no change expected through 2018. Many employers are complaining about a shortage in skilled workers.
Wendler applied online for General Dynamics Land Systems in February 2009. GDLS was accepting resumes from welders interested in signing one-year contracts for completing repairs and retrofits on Stryker eight-wheeled, light armored combat vehicles in Iraq, Afghanistan and Qatar.
GDLS produces 10 Stryker configurations: infantry carrier vehicle (most common); command vehicle; fire support vehicle; engineer support vehicle; reconnaissance vehicle; medical evacuation vehicle; anti-tank guided missile vehicle; mortar carrier; nuclear, biological and chemical reconnaissance vehicle; and mobile gun system. The first Strykers deployed into combat from Fort Lewis, Wash., in October 2003, supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.
In May 2009, Wendler completed pre-employment screening that included welding assessment tests at the National Logistics Center in Auburn, Wash., about 30 miles northeast of Fort Lewis. GDLS officials handed him a plane ticket to Canada, where he had to pass a stringent 30-day certification at a Stryker assembly plant in London, Ontario. GDLS paid for lodging and a rental car, as well as furnished a daily food allowance.
Wendler attended a welder’s equivalent to military boot camp in London. Strict examinations tested his abilities in manual metal arc and metal inert gas welding, using rigorous standards. He suggests learning from mistakes by voicing questions. Never cover up errors and always ask for help if necessary, he said.
“It was the hardest testing I’ve ever been through,” said Wendler. “My instructor said they accepted a thousand resumes before they found me. I am extremely proud to say I passed.”
“It was the hardest testing I’ve ever been through. My instructor said they accepted a thousand resumes before they found me. I am extremely proud to say I passed.”
Wendler returned to Auburn, where he signed a one-year contract after selecting Camp As Sayliyah from a list of available U.S. military installations.
“For the most Stryker welding experience,” says Wendler, “Qatar is the place to go.”
In June 2009, Wendler arrived at the Doha International Airport, after flying more than 7,000 miles to the peninsula nation surrounded by the Persian Gulf. The hot, humid air outside caused him to instantly break a sweat. Summer temperatures regularly surpass 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Qatar receives three inches of annual rainfall, contrasted by more than 50 in Olympia, a leading U.S. city for rainy days.
Strykers first rolled into Afghanistan during the summer of 2009, after almost six years in Iraq. The 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division remains the first and only unit in Afghanistan. The 3rd SBCT, 2nd ID and 4th SBCT, 2nd ID are serving in Iraq. Nearly 1,000 Stryker vehicles support the three brigades.
Explosions from roadside bombs quickly struck Strykers assigned to 5th SBTC, 2nd ID, from Fort Lewis. In October 2009, six vehicles were shipped to Camp As Sayliyah, the only battle damage repair facility capable of complete structural overhauls in Southwest Asia. In total, 35 Strykers have arrived for repairs from Afghanistan, according to GDLS reports on April 26.
GDLS contractors restore six battle-damaged Strykers to factory specifications every month in Qatar. They have returned 214 vehicles to deployed troops since 2005. On occasion, the same vehicle is damaged more than once, which allows the contractors to examine the effectiveness of their work. Engineers arrive several times each year to identify structural vulnerabilities for future retrofits.Eight Stryker welding areas sit at the heart of the Qatar warehouse, surrounded by the stench of oil, grease and paint from six mechanic stations. Assistants from the Philippines, Nepal and Egypt keep tools organized, panels prepared and floors swept. Hard and alternative rock music often blasts in the background. Fastened high on the wall is a Washington state flag.
Wendler’s area displays photos of off-road buggies and a stack of magazines. Buried among issues of “4 Wheel Drive and Sport Utility,” “4X4 Garage,” “Four Wheeler,” and a copy of the Canadian financial magazine “Money Sense,” is an edition of “Crawl Magazine,” which he says is “the number one off-road publication for the hardcore enthusiast.”
Wendler is completing his seventh battle-damaged Stryker. During the past 10 months, he has replaced punctured and warped plates, removed cracks and studied a 300-page configuration manual. He has also assisted an 80-vehicle reset project, which refurbished worn-out Strykers. After years of abuse, many had bent brackets and suspension mounts, as well as stressed floor plates. Wendler remains mentored by a senior welder, but his supervisor expects him to become self sufficient soon.
“Tad is the furthest along of our junior welders,” said Adam Fosbre, from Olympia, “as far as his desire to improve and remain part of the team.” Fosbre started as a Stryker retrofit mechanic at Fort Lewis in February 2006. Nine months later, he had passed the welders certification and traveled to Qatar. He was promoted to weld supervisor after more than two years working on Strykers.
“The tolerance level here is beyond anything I’ve ever dealt with,” said Wendler. “Farm and construction equipment runs fine if you weld close to specifications. With Strykers, structural integrity must reach 100 percent in case the vehicle is hit by an improvised explosive device. Plates have to fit perfectly. There is no such thing as a temporary fix.”
“You need to have a strong work ethic,” says Wendler, “since ignoring a mistake can cost lives.”
“You need to have a strong work ethic, since ignoring a mistake can cost lives.”
“The welders are probably the tightest group here,” says Wendler, comparing them to numerous mechanics, warehouse specialists and administrative staff. Aside from a senior welder from London, every other welder is from Washington.
Everyone shares villas and vehicles while living in Doha, Qatar’s capital and most populated city. Located along Qatar’s eastern shore, Doha is a rapidly expanding venue for education, culture, arts and sports. Shopping malls and restaurants resemble those found in United States. Wendler enjoys watching movies at an IMAX 3D cinema, inside a mall elegantly designed with a Venetian theme.
“There is a lot of good camping in the desert,” says Wendler. “All the welders here are outdoorsy.”
GDLS contractors at the battle-damage repair facility typically clock 60- to 72-hour work weeks. Earnings from overtime rates are amplified by qualifying for a substantial overseas tax deduction, which reached $91,400 per qualifying person for 2009. The Internal Revenue Service adjusts maximum foreign-earned income exclusion amounts annually for inflation.Wendler has paid off all his outstanding debts. He hopes to save enough money to open an off-road buggy fabrication workshop in Washington or Colorado. However, with less than two months left on his contract, he’s not ready to return home yet.
“The skills acquired here are good for a welding career,” he says. “If you can put ‘GDLS battle-damage repair’ on your resume, it’s a big bonus. This is a pinnacle in welding professions.”
Wendler hopes to sign another one-year contract as a Stryker welder in Qatar; two more if possible.
“This is the ultimate welding job,” said Fosbre. “You learn all the welding positions and joint configurations. This is a way for someone who really cares about their trade to build up their skills and save some money. Any of our welders can jump back into the job market with valuable experience and a strong resume.”