Ventura County StarOXNARD  PORT HUENEME

 Siblings reunite in Kuwait while preparing for war

By Dani Dodge, DaniDodge@hotmail.com

                     March 20, 2003

                      CAMP 93, Kuwait—Jan Beamer expects her baby brother, Matt O’Brion, to raid her Oxnard refrigerator. With 15 years between them, she’s always mothered him. Feeding him brings her joy.

                     So when he came to her tent recently looking for handouts, it really wasn’t all that unusual. Except that the brother and sister Seabees haven’t seen each other since August. Except that they are in the middle of the Kuwaiti desert preparing for war. Except that she’s a chief and he’s only enlisted and he can still stand at her tent flap and shout out, “Jan, anything to eat?”

                     Beamer is the 37-year-old stern steelworker chief with Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 5. O’Brion, who has a goofy “aw shucks” kind of smile, is a builder third class with NMCB-4. Both battalions are based out of Port Hueneme, but their deployment schedules are on exactly opposite six-month shifts, so when he’s at home, she’s off in Japan or Guam or Spain. Ditto for her. But then, her deployment in Kuwait got extended.

                     So even when war seems imminent, folks near the front try to make the best of it. And sometimes that means family reunions in the oddest of places.

                     There’s been more than one reunion for Battalion 4 while at Camp 93.

                     Hospital Corpsman Chief Sandra Cosico ran into her husband, a Marine hospital corpsman, as she was walking through the Camp 93 medical tent. The Camarillo couple hadn’t seen each other in two months. They had an hour together, then he went back to his unit.

                     Tuesday, Battalion 4’s Petty Officer 3rd Class Alejandro Gonzalez got to see his wife, a reserve Marine fuel specialist, when she showed up at Camp 93 on a convoy.

                     The family reunions, though, often are unexpected. O’Brion, 22, knew his sister was in Kuwait when he got orders to go there. He thought it was so unlikely they’d see each other that he didn’t even pack current pictures of his sister’s children.

                     “I knew she was in the area,” he said, “but I didn’t know where and I thought chances of meeting were slim to none.”

                     But Beamer, 37, used her pull to find her brother and get him on a convoy from Camp Castle to Camp 93. Her battalion is preparing to leave Kuwait.

                     “We don’t know what will happen,” she said. “Tomorrow it could be someone’s time to ship out.”

                     She said when she heard her brother’s battalion was coming to Kuwait, it was just a matter of time before they got to punch each other’s shoulders again and verbally spar over little family jokes, like their arguments over whether he’s really a “little brother” when, at 6-foot-3, he towers over her 5-foot-5 frame. He’s living in a shelter half, an open-tent contraption that affords little protection from the elements, so he teases her about her posh digs in a Bedouin tent with electricity.

                     “Basically we just give each other a tough time when we can,” O’Brion said.

                     Their last meal together in August was Beamer’s favorite, the family’s special manicotti recipe. But their first meal together in Kuwait is in the camp galley: boiled chicken and potatoes, chunks of limp lettuce without salad dressing. And unlike in Beamer’s kitchen, they altogether skip dessert. It’s the cardboard-tasting cousin of chocolate brownies.

                     But they don’t let the dry, dusty taste of the food and the stark, sandy look of the landscape sour their family togetherness. They catch up, reminisce and laugh.

                     “You take the time you get and savor it,” Beamer said.

 Conflict with Iraq: Young Seabee sheds ‘prissy girl’ image

 Sunday, March 23, 2003

 By DANI DODGE, Scripps Howard News Service

INSIDE IRAQ — Her knee on the wheel of a humvee, Petty Officer 3rd class Cheryl Courier looks hard at the Marlboro burning between her dry, cracked fingertips.

“When I got deployed to Kuwait, I never thought a war would affect me,” she said slowly, savoring her words like she does the harsh taste of nicotine.

“But look at me now. I’m having my last cigarette before we cross the border.”

It was actually many hours and three cigarettes later when Courier drove across the Iraqi border with several hundred other members of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 4 from Port Hueneme, Calif.. Courier, 24,

knows she’s now going to be the stuff of legends in her Thousand Oaks, Calif., family.

“I’ll be like ‘I remember the war of 2003’ when I talk to my grandkids,” she said.

These members of NMCB-4 have crossed into Iraq with the intention of backing up other military forces with their construction and weapons skills.  They could be asked to rebuild bombed bridges, lay down airfields and reconstruct roads. Late Saturday, at a desolate spot in the Iraqi desert, they waited for word on where they would head.

After a night of watching missiles sail overhead, it was about noon Friday when they deserted their makeshift camp by the border. They left in a convoy of many, many trucks laden with pipes, bridge parts and culverts.

The American military traffic going into Iraq was so heavy, they were delayed many times. Each time they were stalled in a long trail of construction equipment at the side of the road. A dump truck broke in the demilitarized zone between Kuwait and Iraq, and had to be towed. They didn’t cross the berm, tank ditch and razor wire that mark the Iraqi border until 1:30 a.m., even though it was only about 3 miles from their Kuwati makeshift camp. In Courier’s humvee, the event was only sleepily acknowledged with a heightened awareness.

Once in Iraq, there was a report of “non-Americans” moving to a bunker as the convoy approached. The Seabees slowed and stopped rather than drive by to be popped off one by one. Eventually, they discovered the men were American sympathizers.

They scanned the sides of the roads for the large ant hills that could mean unexploded land mines. And they slept. Somehow, they shut their eyes against the danger, and nodded off even as the truck bounced down the road.

Courier pulled a sleeping bag over her head and slept on the floor of the humvee.

And when the dawn rose, Courier woke to a remarkable sight: A family at the side of the road — father, mother and two children all in robes. They were waving at the long line of Seabees as they passed.

“You are my friend,” the man shouted out.

Courier put down her M-16, and pulled out her disposable camera.

It was a welcome oasis amid the other sights along the road: cars and shelters blown into small metal fragments, and huge craters marking the places where mortars had landed.

In all, they drove 22 hours to reach a refueling area in the Iraqi desert.

Courier was in the Alpha command post truck, where the construction mechanics and equipment operators all go for guidance. With her were Ensign Jason Wiese, Sr. Chief Michelle “Shelly” Lavoie, Lt. Bill Butler, and Construction Mechanic Chief Richard Rhodes. Wiese, Lavoie and Courier rode in the back of the truck where they sat on wood slat seats and shivered in the cold night air and tried to wrap clothes around their mouths and noses to avoid breathing in the swirling sand.

Courier is the lead communicator for Alpha Company and is responsible for maintaining communications for the group.

Among her family, she’s become a hero.

“It’s a big thing in my family to join the military,” she said trying to suppress the hacking cough that had afflicted several people in the truck. “I was a prissy girl, but now they are very proud of me.”

She says now when she goes to family reunions, she’ll have something to contribute.

“But, I’m really looking forward to my 10-year reunion,” she said. “Not many people can say they did this for their country.”

And yet, when she looked around at the desert, and the sheepherders and the rural roads clogged with military traffic, she was still somewhat mystified.

“I still can’t believe we’re in Iraq,” she said.”This is one of the most dangerous places on earth and I didn’t expect it to be so quiet.

“But I think there’s more to come. This isn’t over.”

Hueneme Battalion 4 crosses into
Iraq: awaiting orders in lonely desert

                     By Dani Dodge, DaniDodge@hotmail.com

                     March 23, 2003

                      IRAQ—Her knee on the wheel of a Humvee, Petty Officer 3rd Class Cheryl Courier looked hard at the Marlboro burning between  her dry, cracked fingertips.

                     “When I got deployed to Kuwait, I never thought a war would affect me,” she said slowly, savoring her words like she does the harsh taste of nicotine, “but look at me now. I’m having my last cigarette before we cross the border.”

                     It was actually many hours and three cigarettes later when Courier drove across the Iraqi border with several hundred other members of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 4 from Port Hueneme. Courier, 24, knows she’s now going to be the stuff of legends in her Thousand Oaks family. “I’ll be like ‘I remember the war of 2003’ when I talk to my grandkids,” she said.

                     While some of the 700 members of NMCB-4 are still living at Camp 93 in Kuwait, others moved to within three miles of the Iraqi border two days ago.

                     That same group has now crossed into Iraq with the intention of backing up other military forces with their construction and weapons skills.

                     They could be asked to rebuild bombed bridges, lay down airfields and reconstruct roads. Late Saturday, at a desolate spot in the Iraqi desert, they waited for word on where they would head.

                     After a night of watching missiles sail overhead, it was about noon Friday when they left their makeshift camp by the border. They left in a convoy of many, many trucks laden with pipes, bridge parts, and culverts, but their trek into Iraq was no Friday afternoon drive.

                     The American military traffic going into Iraq was so heavy they were delayed many times. Each time they were stalled in a long trail of construction equipment at the side of the road. A dump truck broke in the demilitarized zone between Kuwait and Iraq and had to be towed. They didn’t cross the berm, tank ditch and razor wire that mark the Iraqi border until 1:30 a.m., even though it was only about three miles from their Kuwaiti makeshift camp.  In Courier’s Humvee, the event was only sleepily acknowledged with a heightened awareness.

                     Once in Iraq, there was a report of non-Americans moving to a bunker as the convoy approached. The Seabees slowed and stopped rather than drive by to be popped off one by one.  Eventually, they discovered the men were American sympathizers.

                     They scanned the sides of the roads for the large anthills that could mean unexploded land mines, and they slept. Somehow, they shut their eyes against the danger, and nodded off even as the truck bounced down the road. Courier pulled a sleeping bag over her head and slept on the floor of the Humvee.

                     When the dawn came, Courier woke to a remarkable sight: a family at the side of the road, father, mother and two children all in robes. They were waving at the long line of Seabees as they passed. “You are my friend,” the man shouted out.

                     Courier put down her M-16, and pulled out her disposable camera.  It was a welcomed oasis amid the other sights along the road: cars and shelters blown into small metal fragments and huge craters marking the places where mortars had landed.

                     In all, they drove 22 hours to reach a refueling area in the Iraqi desert. Courier was in the Alpha command post truck, where the construction mechanics and equipment operators all go for guidance. With her were Ensign Jason Wiese, Sr. Chief Michelle “Shelly” Lavoie, Lt. Bill Butler and Construction Mechanic Chief Richard Rhodes. Wiese, Lavoie and Courier rode in the back of the truck, where they sat on wood slat seats, shivered in the cold night air and tried to wrap clothes around their mouths and noses to avoid breathing in the swirling sand.

                     Courier is the lead communicator for Alpha Company and is responsible for maintaining communications for the group. A Westlake High School graduate, she is one of only three of her graduating class who joined the military after high school.

                     “In Thousand Oaks, military is not the thing to do,” she said. “It didn’t go over at all well with my friends. Some haven’t spoken to me.”

                     However, among her family members, she’s become a hero. “It’s a big thing in my family to join the military,” she said, trying to suppress the hacking cough that has afflicted several people in the truck.

                     “I was a prissy girl, but now they are very proud of me.” She said now when she goes to family reunions she’ll have something to contribute, “but, I’m really looking forward to my 10-year reunion,” she said. “Not many people can say they did this for their country.”

                     And yet, as she looked around at the desert and the sheepherders and the rural roads clogged with military traffic, she still is somewhat mystified. “I still can’t believe we’re in Iraq,” she said, pulling the book “The Tribulation Force” from her backpack.  “This is one of the most dangerous places on earth, and I didn’t expect it to be so quiet, but I think there’s more to come. This isn’t over.”

                      -- Editors note: While Dani Dodge enjoys getting e-mail regarding her stories, her capability to read and respond to e-mail is currently very limited in Iraq. She apologizes to those with whom she cannot communicate.

  Seabees headed closer to fighting

                      By Dani Dodge, DaniDodge@hotmail.com

                     March 24, 2003 

                     SOUTHERN IRAQ—Monday morning, local time, a small crew of fewer than 50  Seabees from Port Hueneme’s Battalion 4 was lined up in convoy position headed toward An Nasiriyah, where, the day before, U.S. troops were   captured and killed by Iraqi forces.  They are needed to repair a bridge for the Marines.      “I’d rather do this than just sit in camp,”

                     said equipment operator Paul Toner, a 19-year-old Battalion 4 Seabee from Lock Haven, Pa. “I want to be able to  tell my children stories about whar I did in the war.”

                      These members of Task Force Mike,made up of members of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 4, had been waiting in a makeshift camp they set up after a 22-hour drive into Iraq.

                     It was there they heard the reports that a Marine had been killed two days earlier near where they were camped. Then rumors spread from Seabee to Seabee that a Scud intercepted by a Patriot missile had been headed for them two nights before as they camped in the Kuwait desert near the border. And, all night, they were woken again and again by the sound of shelling and artillery.

                     And it was there, Sunday morning, they were first told to form the convoy. Now, the Seabees’ reputation as construction workers who can build anything in less time than anyone else was going to draw them into the battle.

                     In the blistering sun of the Middle East, they’ve developed bleeding cracks on the tips of their fingers. Some suffer from severely chapped lips. Others are beginning to feel their bravado crumble.

                     “We weren’t trained for combat,” one Seabee petty officer complained. “Our twice a year combat training is Vietnam-era or worse; it was a joke. We are only trained to build and defend.”

                     When one officer learned of their possibility of going to An Nasiriyah, he physically took a step back. “But that’s in the middle of things,” he said. “They are encountering hostile forces there.”

                     Capt. William Rudich of the 30th Naval Construction Regiment and commander of Task Force Mike, addressed the Seabees about their role before they left Camp 93 in Kuwait four days ago.

                     “Realistically, we are doing what Seabees do,” Rudich said.

                     “Maybe it’s a different environment. Maybe a little faster.”

                     Members of the battalion will build bridges, fix airfields and grade roads, he said.

                     “It has been said this will be the war of the bridges. Who controls the bridges. Who builds the bridges,” Rudich said. “Basically, we are talking about basic Seabee mission.”

                     Sunday, after Lt. Cmdr. Joel Baldwin briefed equipment operator Chief Michael Neumann on the mission in An Nasiriyah, he acknowledged it was dangerous work the Marines need done.  But, he said, the Seabees are trained and have security.

                     He told the troops: “Keep your heads down. You’ll be fine. Just stay on the freakin’ road or you’ll be in the middle of the fighting.”

                     After the briefing, construction electrician 1st class Manuel Pulido said he’s not worried.

                     “My gun crew is good to go,” he said. “This is my job, and I’ll get it done.”

                     And with that, Pulido got into his Humvee with a machine-gun turret, and the convoy waited for its turn to join the parade of military vehicles going by the camp into the fighting.

                     By the end of Sunday, the Seabees were told to stand down. The Marines were involved in heavy fighting.

                     Then, before dawn Monday, the word came to form the convoy again. And the Seabees set out for An Nasiriyah and the war.

 

 

 Seabees span canal in 4 daysU.S. military requests supply route into capital

 

                     By Dani Dodge, DaniDodge@hotmail.com

                     April 7, 2003

                      IRAQ—The mission started with lines

                     drawn in the sand and ended with a

                     back door supply route that skirted

                     enemy-infested Nasiriyah and could

                     hasten the end of the war.

 

                     The U.S. military needed a bridge over

                     the Saddam Canal. It called the

                     Seabees.

 

                     It is the longest bridge built by

                     Seabees, a construction unit of the U.S.

                     Navy, since World War II. Like the road

                     to Baghdad in this war, the path toward

                     completion was filled with unexpected

                     detours and dead ends.

 

                     This is the story of a bridge and the

                     men and women who built it.

 

                     Friday, March 28

 

                     Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 4 Cmdr. James Worcester

                     climbs atop a 4-foot-tall electricity generator to address the

                     Seabees about their mission. The sun has not yet risen, and

                     Worcester, 43, of Oceanside, is just a dark figure in the misty

                     dust-filled desert air.

                     “It may look like a simple road. It may look like a simple bridge,” he says, projecting his voice over the 200 Seabees, “but this will matter significantly in the overall campaign.

                     “We will play a big part in paving the way to victory out here.”

                     The Seabees, eager for meaningful work, scream “hoo-rah.”

                     The 600-member Battalion 4, based at Port Hueneme, arrived in Kuwait in stages during February and early March. Many of the battalion members left Camp 93 in Kuwait on March 19, the day President George Bush declared war with Iraq had begun.

                     Since then, the Seabees have been living in the desert, without showers or beds or toilets, moving from impromptu camp to impromptu camp to get in position for their moment in history.

                     The harsh climate’s toll is already etched in their faces. After the last sandstorm, many started to shave their heads to avoid the accumulation of sand and dirt and oils that made their hair stand on end. They shave their faces so their gas masks will form a tight seal when needed, but to save their razors, they use the blades judiciously. Even Worcester’s strong features are softened by the light brown fuzz on his upper lip. The look is even more disconcerting on the younger Seabees whose upper lips seem to attract dirt instead of bristles.

                     The sand and grime of desert life has insinuated itself into unimagined cracks and crevices on their hands and faces.

                     For them, the relation of age to lines has lost its meaning.

                     They crowd together and crane their necks to see their commander as their mission is further revealed.

                     “This is the road to Baghdad,” says LtJG. Jeff Jordan, 40, of Oxnard, pointing to a long line in the sand. Then he points to Nasiriyah, then to the bridge they are building between the two that bypasses the area nicknamed “Ambush Alley.”

                     Jordan sets out the small collections of rocks near the bridge sight on his map in the sand. They represent population centers. And there are many rocks. That’s not the only problem the Seabees will encounter.

                     They have the parts to make a 60-meter bridge, but the Saddam Canal is 95 meters wide. They have to get equipment to the other side of the canal, but there’s no road or bridge crossing within 50 miles.

                     Also, the Army and Marines need the bridge done, and they need it now.

                     Saturday, March 29, 4 p.m.

                     After a day and a half of waiting, the Marine unit assigned to protect the Seabees during the building arrives. Jordan and Lt.  Marc Rouleau, 39, of Oxnard, go on a reconnaissance of possible bridge sites in two of the Marines’ light armored vehicles.  However, they have the wrong coordinates and end up at an old canal after dark. It’s much smaller than Rouleau had imagined from the aerial photos. Things look wrong.

                     A pickup with its brights on pulls up to Rouleau’s tank. The Marine in the turret screams: “He’s got a weapon, an AK-47.”

                     Marines push Rouleau back into the tank. The strangers jump over a berm and disappear.

                     Sunday, March 30, 5 a.m.

                     Rouleau and Jordan drive out to the site again at sunup. As they approach, they spot a much bigger canal, full of water, with an unfinished bridge next to it. It is about 200 meters from the first site.

                     “Oh (expletive),” Rouleau says.

                     He immediately calls back to camp: “All bridge parts are needed.

                     Send the bridge crew immediately.”

                     Sunday, March 30, 3 p.m.

                     After driving past small square homes of earth and straw, and waving at children standing along the route, the convoy of 40 vehicles arrives at the canal. The site is dominated by a large concrete bridge that the Iraqis started before Desert Storm and abandoned. The white concrete columns stick out of the canal like gravestones.

                     However, it’s the flowing green water that attracts the eyes of Seabees.

                     Steel Worker Chief Gerald Wheeler, 35, of Warner Robins, Ga., chills the enthusiasm: The water could be full of poisons and parasites. The black flags they saw flying on their way to the site could mean the homes are friendly to Iraqi soldiers. No one can wander alone. Kevlar, flack vests, and chemical protection suits must be worn at all times.

                     “You need to look around you,” Jordan says. “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”

                     The Marines are fighting for control of Ash Shatrah, a small town just a short drive north. Battles continue in Nasiriyah to the south.

                     “We need to get this job done,” says Senior Chief Roy Fessenden, 43, of Fresno, “and get the hell out of here.”

                     The battalion leaders decide to build a dirt pier into the canal to fill the 35-meter gap between their bridge and the canal width. To protect the pier, they start to pull apart 5-foot-long, 100-pound steel culvert halves that are tightly spooned together. They bolt them into full circles and put three together to form 15-foot cylinders. The cylinders will be placed around the pier to divert the water so it doesn’t eat away the dirt.

                     Builder 3rd Class Brett West, 21, of Laconia, N.H., goes to work before even setting up his tent.

                     “It’s pretty nice we get to come out here and get dirty for a reason instead of just sucking sand for no reason,” says the sweet-faced bespectacled Seabee. “If those guys up front get stuck without supplies, they’re screwed, so the sooner we get the bridge up, the better off we’ll be, and hopefully the war will get over sooner.”

                     They start shifts of eight hours on and eight hours off.

                     When they do set up their tents, the Seabees play with the geckos crawling over the ground. They watch blond spiders bigger than Frisbees wander across the sand. They dodge or smash furious, huge black beetles scurrying toward them.

                     As they work, Iraqis in scarves and long robes gather across the bank. A breeze blows and billows their robes exposing their ankles and crumbling black sandals. They do not move. They simply watch. Some Seabees are unnerved but trust that the Marines have the situation under control.

                     Monday, March 31, 6 a.m.

                     Like crows gathering on a roof, the Iraqis multiply across the river.  A few arrive at sunup, then more as the morning heats up. Single file, they sit on their haunches in the dirt, staring across the river at the Seabees.

                     The Seabees continue to put together the culverts and push dirt into the canal to create a pier. In the Combat Operations Center, a large tent covered with desert camouflage netting near the site, the battalion’s leaders brainstorm ways to get bridge and road building equipment across the canal.

                     The bridge will be built on the south side of the canal where they are camped and snaked across to the north side where the Iraqis sit and watch. However, the Seabees need equipment and bridge parts on the north side of the bridge before they can push the bridge across. They decide to put the equipment on a barge just down the river and pull it across.

                     Monday, March 31, almost midnight.

                     The Seabees toil in the cold desert night illuminated by high powered overhead lights that make the construction site shine like a Christmas tree.

                     The enthusiasm for the project, though, wanes. After hours of dealing with the steel, the Seabees’ hands are nicked with cuts and bruised by misplaced blows of their hammers. They dream of power tools and culverts that fit together easily. Instead they wrestle with each piece of steel.

                     “We’re not Marines; we’re not used to this,” says Steel Worker Construction Man Felipe Gonzales, 23, of Houston. “I’ve never been this dirty in my life.”

                     Tuesday, April 1, 1 a.m.

                     The quiet at the Seabees’ tents is shattered by intense, almost uncontrolled, top-of-the-lungs cursing.

                     “Get your (expletive) lazy asses out of bed,” a petty officer screams though tent linings. “Goddamn it, we relieved you 15 minutes early and for (expletive) what? Get the (expletive) up.”

                     The berating continues for nearly 10 minutes as the Seabees, who overslept their shift, crawl out of their sleeping bags.

                     One drowsy Seabee mumbles, “It’s not like there’s a ton of (expletive) alarm clocks out here in Iraq.”

                     Tuesday, April 1, 8 a.m.

                     The earthen pier, made with 3,000 cubic yards of hard packed earth from the river bed, is sticking nearly 35 meters into the canal. Sixty culverts are tied into groups of three. They are dumped into the water, smashed down into the canal bed, and then filled with dirt. They look like giant beer cans discarded after a wild teenage party.

                     Finally the bridge builders begin their jobs.

                     “It was frustrating to wait to do something, but the whole (culvert) deal is new to us,” says Builder 2nd Class Lenny Dye, 29, of Camarillo. “This is also the first time doing this bridge for many of us, but we’re rested and fresh to go.”

                     They begin to build the bridge on top of wooden braces. The Seabees have made similar bridges before, called Bailey bridges, but few have tackled this bridge, a Mabey Johnson. It is longer and allows for heavier traffic. Most of those who did have training on the Mabey Johnson only got two days worth in the Kuwaiti desert.

                     There’s a lot of yelling and cursing, but the atmosphere is exuberant.

                     “There’s really no difference between this and training except it’s more tense,” says Builder Construction Man Daniel Vokey, 21, of Wilmington, Mass.

                     Builder 1st Class Jody Binette, 29, of Great Falls, Mont., recognizes one important difference between this bridge and what they were building in the desert.

                     “At least this one we won’t have to take apart,” she says, laughing.

                     The first step involves laying out the rollers the bridge will be placed on to launch it across the canal. The rollers must be straight and level or the bridge will fly off track when they try to push it across the canal.

                     “It is the most important part of the job,” says Wheeler.

                     Once the rollers are laid out, the bridge is fully built on the south side of the canal, before they push it across.

                     Tuesday, April 1, 2 p.m.

                     Rear Adm. Charles Kubic, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Engineer Group, flies into the bridge site on a Chinook helicopter.

                     Dust swirls and heads turn. He reaches out his hand to the commanding officer and the lieutenants and then poses for photos with the work crews in front of the beginnings of a bridge.  Seabees excitedly hand their Kodak disposable cameras to whoever will take them.

                     Kubic congratulates the Seabees on their accomplishment. The dirt pier is strong, and the bridge is in its infancy. He’s especially proud of the innovative culverts protecting the pier, which he had a hand in creating.

                     “This is history,” Kubic says. “We’ve never done an earth mole like this.”

                     He points out what it really means: “This is a bypass of Nasiriyah.  It’s not something the Iraqis ever would have expected. They’ll be bringing ammunition, fuel and food to the front line troops coming through the back door.”

                     Basically, there are two main supply routes from Kuwait to Baghdad. One is Highway 1 and the other Highway 7. U.S. forces were using Highway 7 but were getting ambushed. So the forces decided to push the supplies up Highway 1 to the west then cut over to Highway 7 past Nasiriyah. To do that, they needed a bridge, this Seabee bridge.

                     The battalion’s road crew goes a half-mile down a dirt path to talk to the Iraqi man who operates a barge across the canal. It is a flat steel float that he pulls across the river on a rope. The man agrees to take their equipment across for a box of 12 MREs, or Meals, Ready to Eat.

                     Two Humvees successfully cross the canal as the Seabees and Marines pull on the line, but when they try to take the grader onto the barge, it tips. They salvage the grader, but the idea of how to get the equipment across is shot.

                     The battalion leaders call for Marine helicopters to take their equipment across, but hedge their bets and also ask for assistance from Navy LARKS—Light Amphibious Resupply Cargo craft. In the meantime, the Seabee Underwater Construction Team begins to ferry lumber and bridge parts piece by piece across the canal in a small Zodiac power raft.

                     As they cross, about 20 Iraqis back away from the canal bank onto a berm.

                     Tuesday, April 1, 5 p.m.

                     The Seabees chain the last beam of the bridge to an excavator.  Equipment Operator 1st Class Butch Shimota, 29, of Veseli, Minn., nudges the edge of the bridge with his boom. There is silence, but the bridge slides smoothly out across the canal 10 meters.  Shimota flashes a grin and gives a thumb up.

                     “It’s good to finally do some good work,” he says. “This is especially good because maybe we’ll be saving some lives.”

                     Tuesday, April 1, 7 p.m.

                     The good work of the day is tempered by a frightening rumor that spreads in the night. With no CNN or The New York Times to counter the rumors, these things blow through the camps like sandstorms. Often not only the enlisted sailors but also the officers will ask for news from the embedded reporters who have access to the Internet, satellite phones and radios. Today’s rumor is that Iraqis smashed a Marine’s kneecaps and then slit her throat on live television. In the absence of light, the story spreads and grows from tent to tent in camp.

                     “That’s pretty jacked up,” says Builder Construction Man Adam Helschein, 25, of Freehold, N.J. “If we’re fighting a country that doesn’t follow the rules, we shouldn’t have to follow the rules.”

                     His friend, Steel Worker 1st Class Terry McCune, 33, of Tucson, Ariz., disagrees. “That would make us no better than them.”

                     Like a number of rumors before it, there was no truth to the report.

                     Wednesday, April 2, midnight

                     The bridge is nearly halfway across the river. The first panels are much lighter than those being built now on the south shore. The hope is to balance the structure as it pushes out over the water.

                     “It’s a simple fulcrum lever idea,” says Builder Chief George Freese, 40, of Point Mugu. “If you get the center of balance too far forward, it will just go into the river.

                     “One hundred thirty-five tons of bridge falls into the river, there’s no way to get it out.”

                     Wednesday, April 2, 8:45 a.m.

                     The bridge hangs 50 meters over the canal like a giant, unbalanced teeter-totter. Although the north end of the bridge is bent with an upward hook, the bridge dips toward the rushing water in the middle.

                     “Look at it,” marvels Builder Construction Man John Stevens, 19, of Camarillo. “If it went in, wouldn’t you just laugh? What else could you do?”

                     The Seabees still have a problem.

                     They can’t land the bridge on the north side of the canal.

                     There’s no landing pad, no rollers, nothing to stabilize the outstretched arm.

                     By 9 a.m. the bridge itself is complete, but it’s still not touching the north bank.

                     Wednesday, April 2, about noon

                     There is no helicopter, but a LARK starts taking bridging materials across the river. It is a boat on wheels that can drive from the bank of the camp, power through the canal like a boat, and then drive up the other side.

                     At the same time, the Zodiac is also taking people across, including Chaplain Brandon Harding, 32, of Point Mugu. He carries a box of food items Seabees discarded from their MREs: crackers, peanut butter, pork chop patties. The Iraqis laugh and the children pounce on the box, tearing into it like a birthday pinata.  Many of the boys wear robes, but other are in old sweat shirts and pants. Some wear black sandals that are torn and barely hanging onto their feet. Others have no shoes at all.

                     One man in a red and white head scarf and black robe says, “Bridge, it’s OK!”

                     He says the bridge will help him get his seven children to school.

                     Wednesday, April 2, 11 a.m.

                     The bridge is nearly to the north shore of the canal. It looks poorly balanced, but the Seabees set up the rollers on the north side to receive the bridge. Each wheel is only about six inches across. The landing must be exact. Wheeler, a normally easygoing jovial chief, is vibrating with nervousness. On the walkie-talkie, he guides the 135 tons of bridge onto the rollers. When he thinks he has the landing rollers correctly placed, he yells for the equipment operator to start pushing.

                     There is a groan of metal.

                     “Hold there. Hold there,” he screams as the bridge aims a few inches too far right. A Seabee scuttles under all the metal and adjusts the brace holding the roller.

                     “Nice and easy. Bring it now. Bring it now.”

                     Wheeler breaths in and out deeply as if he’s just run a 100-meter dash.

                     “Keep going. Keep going.”

                     Then, despite 60 meters of steel to aim, the rollers meet the bridge in a perfect line. It keeps rolling, and the bow it had developed over the middle of the river straightens out.

                     The Seabees grin, clap, and one spouts,”This bridge done, we’ll win the war.”

                     There’s still much more to do before the bridge will carry tanks and ammunition trucks. Right now it is hardly any more stable than a fence plank children put across a creek. They must take it off the rollers and put it on man-made steel platforms on each bank that will anchor the bridge in place. The eight-hour shifts are abandoned in the rush to finish. Everyone is on.

                     Thursday, April 3, 8 a.m.

                     One Seabee is flat on his back in the dirt, snoring softly, a fly on his lip. Others are strewn about the bridge site, their faces masks of dirt, their eyes empty and drained.

                     Builder Construction Man Timothy Hutter, 21, of Lakeside, Ariz., describes the night as “painfully slow and bitterly cold.”

                     He is lying on his back on a 4-foot-long wooden box now empty of bridge bolts. His left arm hangs off, limp, suspended by only tendons and muscle but not an ounce of energy.

                     “The bridge was sinking, and the wood was giving, and we could only jack it down two inches at a time,” says Hutter, who has been up for 32 hours straight. “Right now we are making history, so we are learning as we go.”

                     As he talks, he sits up, and lights one of the last Marlboros owned by a Seabee. Most Seabees finished theirs weeks ago, and the going rate for a single smoke is $20 in camp, but, it doesn’t improve Hutter’s disposition.

                     “I feel pretty heinous right now,” he says.

                     Across the river, local children sell Iraqi cigarettes for $2 a pack “American money,” they chime. The Seabees, forbidden from talking with locals, are driven by their hunger for nicotine to break the rules. They sneak over and then hide the Iraqi cigarettes from their chiefs. They are disappointed when the cigarettes flame out upon lighting, burning up before they even have a chance to take a puff.

                     Thursday, April 3, 9 a.m.

                     People walk across the bridge with awe. Told a doctor may arrive, the crowd of Iraqis has grown to nearly 40.

                     The chaplain summons the battalion’s corpsmen, who walk across the bridge carrying their medical bags.

                     The first man to approach a corpsman motions that his wrists are broken.

                     The hospital corpsman puts down his bag and then his M-16 as he softly probes the man’s wrists to determine the problem. The crowd grows and presses in.

                     A stern Marine with eyes lighter than the desert sky is by the corpsman’s side before his gently pressing fingers have reached up the Iraqi’s arm.

                     “Don’t lay your (expletive) weapon down,” the gunnery sergeant says with a quiet sternness that is underlined with deadly seriousness. “All it takes is for one stupid person to grab it.”

                     After the corpsman has put the rifle back over his shoulder, the Marine military adviser to the Seabees takes the chaplain aside and warns him of the need for better security when dealing with locals.

                     “If one of those 4-year-olds takes off with that gun, who’s going to have to cap him?” the Marine says with an unblinking stare.  “Will you? No. I’ll have to ... but will I let that weapon fall into enemy hands? No.”

                     The Iraqi crowd, still growing, is pushed back. Only those injured are allowed forward, and only children will be treated. There is not enough medicine to go around. The corpsmen inject Lidocaine into one young girl’s scalp before removing a sebaceous cyst from the back of her head. It is an injection that stings, but then deadens the pain before the surgery.

                     She doesn’t cry out or even whimper.

                     Thursday, April 3, 10 a.m.

                     It’s 103.7 degrees in the shade. The first vehicles roll across the bridge: two Humvees full of Marines and then the first Seabee driving a tow truck hauling a bulldozer.

                     Brett Johnson, 22, of Pasadena says he has “butterflies” as he drives the 75 tons of equipment across the new bridge.

                     “I had faith in these guys, and someone had to do it,” he says driving onto the dirt on the other side. “I didn’t think it would fail, but if it did, I had my gear (flak vest, canteens, etc.) off and the window down.”

                     The $1.9 million bridge will carry 70 tons without complaint. Unlike the tactical bridges built in times of intense combat, it is expected to last at least 25 years. The Seabees name the bridge after Steel Worker Chief Scott Denison, a Seabee who died in Port Hueneme last year of a heart attack.

                     “If you look at that bridge, it’s really really strong, but when anything goes over it has a lot of flex to it,” says Fessenden, “and that’s probably Scott Denison right there.”

                     Worcester looks on with pride. Not only will this help the war effort, but also it will help the people of Iraq for many years to come, he says.

                     “We’ve done what Saddam couldn’t: put a bridge across here to enhance trade and commerce for the farmers here,” he says looking at the unfinished piers of a bridge next to their shining steel structure. “The people have been sitting here waiting for this bridge for many years, and we gave it to them in four days.”

                     Friday, April 4.

                     A water truck pulls into their camp. Using a bucket with holes punched in the bottom, the Seabees get showers. They look young again.

 

 

  Seabees Avoid Missile Attacks

                          By Nathan Mihelich, Embedded Reporter

04/08/03

                          Seabee ‘Camp 93’ is in the Kuwaiti desert. It’s named after

                          the American Airlines’ plane that went down on September

                          11th. Bunkers outline the perimeter of the camp. At the

                          beginning of the war, Seabees found themselves rushing to

                          the bunkers as many as five times a day.

                          Most of the bunkers are made of concrete and buried

                          several feet in the sand. Anytime a projectile is seen close

                          to the area, the Seabees take cover in the bunkers.

                          Seabees will wait in the bunkers until the threat of attack is

  gone and there is confirmation that chemical agents are not in the air.

  During possible attacks Seabees will put on their MOPP (Mission Oriented Protective Posture) suits. The suits shield the Seabees from any toxic substances. Waiting in the concrete bunkers isn’t so bad because the sun isn’t beating down on you. There’s another bunker on the other side of camp which provides protection from artillery, but not from the hot rays of the desert sun.

  On one occasion, we could hear the anti-aircraft batteries go off and we all ran to the bunkers. The heat was unbearable as we waited in the outside bunker. I could see the sweat running down the faces of the Seabees. You can’t take the mask off, because you don’t know what chemical agents are in the air. After a while, it becomes hard to breathe.  I even saw one Seabee pass out.

  The best thing to do is drink water. Each gas mask has a little hose you can connect to your canteen to suck water through.

  I was shocked one morning, when a lieutenant told me that a SCUD landed a click and a half from our camp - that’s less than a mile. Certainly a close call.

 

 

Seabees face explosions, blown kisses

                     By Dani Dodge, DaniDodge@hotmail.com

                     April 11, 2003

 

                     BAGHDAD, Iraq—If the Seabees from Port Hueneme didn’t know

                     the meaning of war before they arrived in Iraq, they are learning

                     it now in Baghdad.

                     About 100 Seabees from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 4 woke abruptly Thursday night when a mini van ran over a land mine and blew up into a two-story fireball just across the street from their camp. Seabees searching Iraqis for weapons found guns, knives and bayonets The battalion’s corpsmen assisted more than a dozen people, including a woman who had a miscarriage under the river, a man whose hand was turned hamburger by an Iraqi explosion, and a 10-year-old child with seven bullet wounds in his leg.

                     Ancient wrinkled women in black head scarves, and men toting listless children in their arms, begged the Seabees for food and water.

                     “It’s chaos,” said Builder 2nd Class Mike Wahrenberger, 23, of Houston as he searched a woman’s tote bag for weapons.

                     “Yesterday, someone just dropped a grenade right there,” he said pointing at the base of the bridge. “I almost stepped on it.  Fortunately the pin wasn’t pulled.”

                     But along with the horrors of war were the accomplishments.

                     This afternoon the Seabees finished building a $2 million steel bridge over a concrete bridge that had been dynamited by Iraqi forces trying to keep coalition forces out of the capitol. The bridge, a major passageway into the city over the Diyalah River, will help U.S. forces get into Baghdad more quickly to quell the pockets of resistance that continue to sputter, as well as allow the people of Iraq to cross the river safely.

                     Marine engineers had put a temporary fix over the damage, but it wasn’t enough to keep people and military traffic moving into and out of Baghdad this week, so the Seabees were called. The Seabees cleared the area of debris Wednesday afternoon, and had sniper fire overhead their camp Wednesday night. They began building a bridge to span the gap Thursday, and finished Friday before 5 p.m. The sun, lowering in the sky, reflected off it like a precious metal.

                     “It’s beautiful,” said Lt. Marc Rouleau, 39, of Oxnard.

                     Navy Seabees are trained to build and maintain roads, bridges and airfields as well as defend the structures they create. They built the bridge over the Diyalah in 20 hours. Battalions that had been trained in the construction back in the United States took 30 hours to do the same job, boasted Steelworker Chief Gerald Wheeler, 35, of Warner Robins, Ga.

                     Friday, their camp was rocked by explosions from across the river as the U.S. Department of Defense detonated an ammunition dump. Many, though, thought it was a major firefight. Others thought they were getting shelled.

                     The concussions from the explosions were so strong, the sides of the medical Humvee sucked in like a woman having her photo taken.

                     “We’re just a lot more forward that we ever should be so we’re going to see more,” said construction electrician Justin Powell, 23, of Houston as he trained an M-50 on two men kneeling on the ground. The Iraqis were pulled out of their Honda after Seabees discovered they had ammunition for high powered weapons in the front seat of their car.

                     “But I’m all right with it,” Powell said. “We’re here. We’re doing what we need to.”

                     Powell was one of the Seabees who had security duty, cradling their weapons as many thousands of Iraqis passed over the small pedestrian walkway on the bridge either returning home or escaping the fighting.

                     The Iraqis cannot drive over the bridge, so instead they carried their belongings. One woman toted a kitchen sink on her head.  Others carried injured relatives. Two men held up an elderly woman on a donkey: her feet were missing and wrapped in bloody rags. Many carried jars of tomatoes, from a plant that was apparently being looted. There were children in rags dragging their meager belongings behind them in water basins. There was a girl in a white taffeta dress riding on her father’s shoulders.

                     The Seabees just watched the parade in wonder. Many of those who traveled from Port Hueneme to Baghdad never expected to be “freakin’ in the middle for the freakin’ war zone” as one Seabee put it. Another said he could easily go his whole life without seeing another vehicle blown up by a land mine. Others weren’t sure whether to be suspicious or friendly to the crowds.

                     As the Iraqis passed over the bridge, many Iraqis asked when it would be finished. Some pantomimed driving a car. Builder construction man apprentice Jason Tiamzon, 22, of Vallejo, Calif., was glad he could answer: “Today.”

                     “You look at these people and they look at us as saviors,” Tiamzon said. “They are so excited we are here. It makes me giddy.”

                     But other Seabees were excited about the bridge’s completion for other reasons.

                     “I’m ready to go home,” said Steelworker 2nd Class Josh Davis, 22, of Port Hueneme. “I don’t like it here. There’s a lot of different things going on that doesn’t happen on a regular deployment.

                     “I don’t like the idea of being shot at.”

                     As he spoke, an Iraqi child in a red dress blew kisses to him