Red hat: Symbol of combat civil engineers' 'Can do, will do, have done' creed

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Susan Penning
  • 193rd Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
Among comrades in matching head-to-toe Airman Battle Uniforms, combat civil engineers donning bright red hats don't exactly blend in with the crowd. In fact, these hats have often been a topic of scrutiny, considering the military's penchant for uniformity and standardization. What could be so important about the mission of these "red hatters" that the Air Force Uniform Board would authorize the head cover as an official part of their uniform? Their story begins post World War II.

After Congress passed the National Security Act of 1947, a new, separate military service - the U.S. Air Force - was established. But, at the time, because the Air Force was created out of the Army, some functions were still retained by the Army. These functions included construction engineering, area security around air bases and long-distance ground transportation.

During the air war in Korea, this delegation of responsibilities to the Army left the Air Force without in-house heavy repair or construction capability, contributing to major problems with base construction and maintenance, according to a 1987 historical analysis for the Air Force Institute of Technology by (then) Capt. Jon Wheeler.

By the time the Vietnam War began in 1955, the organizational structure hadn't changed much. Air Force civil engineers in theater found themselves unable to receive the funding and timely support they needed to rehabilitate, add to and repair installations to accommodate the increasing numbers and types of aircraft being used, Wheeler wrote.

It was becoming evident that the Air Force needed its own construction-capable unit that could be manned, trained and equipped to directly handle these combat support missions.

So in the fall of 1964, at the request of Secretary of the Air Force Harold Brown, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara approved the concept of Rapid Engineer Deployable, Heavy Operations Repair Squadron Engineers - or RED HORSE units. The first two RED HORSE squadrons were activated in October 1965, then trained and deployed to Vietnam in February 1966.

These newly designated RED HORSE Airmen were pre-positioned with equipment and supplies to rapidly respond to heavy bomb damage and disasters, and to make major repairs to runways and installations. They also took on the role of constructing air base security and defense facilities.

After visiting Vietnam at the time, one senior Air Force staff officer was quoted as saying, "The RED HORSE squadrons can do anything and are doing everything."

Word spread quickly about these resourceful RED HORSE Airmen with the "can do, will do, have done" creed who could solve problems swiftly and deliver outstanding results despite extremely austere conditions.

Because of their distinct role in the Air Force combat mission, (the now late) Brig. Gen. Tom Meredith and other U.S. Air Force civil engineers sought approval in 1972 from the Air Force Uniform Board to make a red hat an official part of their uniform. The color was chosen because of its correlation with RED HORSE. The request was approved and the hat remains the mark of all RED HORSE Airmen.

Since the end of the Vietnam War, these lean-and-mean squadrons of about 400 Airmen have continued to be primary elements of U.S. Air Force combat capabilities. RED HORSE units are trained and equipped for possible direct confrontation with enemy forces, and they are often some of the first ones in and last ones out at forward-operating locations.

RED HORSE units include carpenters, electricians and plumbers; heating, ventilation and air conditioning specialists; power production, entomology and production control specialists; heavy equipment operators and engineering assistants; and non-civil engineer personnel such as vehicle maintenance, security forces, training, personnel, supply, finance, knowledge management, network maintenance, medical, emergency management and services Airmen.

Designed to be self-sustaining during deployment, RED HORSE units can construct base facilities quickly from the ground up. They are also trained in demolition, concrete production and paving, disaster preparedness mobility, materials testing, expeditionary aircraft barrier installation, revetment construction, water well drilling, special weapons and special-purpose heavy construction equipment.

RED HORSE missions require flexibility and ingenuity, according to Lt. Col. Terry Robinson, 201st RED HORSE logistics officer.

"From repairing heavy bomb damage and building base facilities in austere environments to the shift from rapid runway repair to spall damage and more permanent runway repair, RED HORSE Airmen have continuously out-performed taskings and wholly dedicated themselves to their missions," said Colonel Robinson.

To offer some recent examples, they built a helicopter parking ramp extension in Iraq. The previous rotation project manager said the job would take an entire six-month rotation to complete. RED HORSE Airmen finished it in less than half that time.

They also repaired damaged roadways in Iraq, risking their safety to ensure these supply routes remained open. In some instances, RED HORSE Airmen discovered insurgents had buried additional explosives in the craters made by previous improvised explosive devices.

They built a clinic in Jamaica that was used as the community hurricane shelter, harboring more than 200 citizens displaced by Hurricane Lili.

"When we leave a project, we leave behind something that endures," Colonel Robinson said.

The esprit de corps and dedication to the RED HORSE way also seems to endure. General Meredith, considered the father of RED HORSE, requested that pallbearers at his funeral wear red hats. And RED HORSE Airmen who have long since retired or separated from the military continue to remain active in the RED HORSE Association, perpetuating their deeply ingrained spirit and traditions.