Builders, The

Builders, The

Axe, David

Seabees wage a gritty war in western Iraq with hammers, nails and two-by-fours

ALANBAR PROVINCE, IRAQ – In mid-January, nearly three years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the war continues unabated. In Baghdad, desperate diplomats negotiate for the life of kidnapped Christian Science Monitor reporter Jill Carroll while the city mourns 10 security guards slain in a Jan. 11 ambush. In Mosul, the Jan. 13 shoot-down of an Army Kiowa Warrior helicopter that killed two aviators has commanders worried about the proliferation of shoulderfired antiaircraft missiles.

In the harsh western province of Al Anbar, Marines battle foreign fighters slipping across the porous border with Syria. And at Al Anbar’s Al Taqaddum airbase, 25 miles west of Baghdad, SWC Jose Torres is fighting his own battle – with bad concrete and incompetent construction contractors.

Torres is operations chief of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 133’s Al Taqaddum, or TQ, detachment. On Jan. 19, he makes the rounds of the 50-person detachment’s projects, including a kennel for a Marine K9 unit, huts for an Army drone company and a delayed concrete batch plant. The plant will end the detachment’s reliance on borrowed Army equipment and enable it to begin much-needed repairs to Al Taqaddum’s dilapidated runways, which support a constant stream of military and chartered civilian cargo flights supplying combat operations in Al Anbar.

The Turkish contractors building the batch plant are frustrated. The plant’s silos require strong concrete pillars but the local materials aren’t up to it. Worse, the contractors’ bosses haven’t provided the heavy equipment they need to efficiently pour concrete. Torres calms the contractors’ excited Lebanese supervisor and explains that they’ll just have to make do.

“Use buckets if you have to,” he advises.

Yes, it’s “seriously old-fashioned,” Torres said – even “stone-age.” But Seabees make do, he explains. And anyone working with the Seabees will make do, too, even if it means grueling hours hauling tons of wet concrete in buckets.

It’s not a glamorous war the Seabees are fighting. It’s a war of hammers, nails, two-by-fours and improvisation in difficult conditions. Despite the occasional incoming mortar round or sniper fire at 133’s detachments, there’s not a lot of shooting in their war.

But without the Seabees, the lives of the soldiers and Marines pulling triggers in western Iraq would be a lot more difficult, even impossible. Besides, the United States is trying to bring some civilization to Al Anbar, by force if necessary, and civilization means concrete and security. Success in this desolate province requires concrete plants, runways and huts as much as it does killing bad guys.

The Navy’s eight-battalion active-duty construction force has maintained one or two battalions in Iraq since the invasion. Battalions rotate every six months, meaning many, like 133, are on their third tour in the country.

On its first deployment to Iraq in early 2003, 133 showed off the full range of its many talents, from combat engineering to civil reconstruction. The battalion built a 14,000-person prisoner holding facility in just 96 hours – in the middle of a sandstorm, no less – and helped string a 210-meter pontoon bridge across the Tigris River. As major combat wound down in 2003, and on its second deployment in 2004, 133 shifted gears, rebuilding 15 schools, cleaning up a British military cemetery and completing other humanitarian projects.

Now things are different. Opportunities for heroic bridge-building are few and far between, and the deteriorating security situation means the Seabees rarely get to leave their fortified bases for humanitarian projects. Now their efforts are focused mostly on improving military infrastructure, facilitating the concentration of coalition forces at a handful of permanent “megabases.” It’s important work, but it reflects an unfortunate shift in the war toward increasingly “hard” operations supporting beleaguered native security forces.

Only a small contingent of Seabees spends much time “outside the wire.” They’re tasked with the gun-truck mission, escorting convoys between Al Anbar’s muddy bases, including Al Taqaddum, Fallujah, the Rawa border post and two bases in Ar Ramadi, the contested city that’s probably the most dangerous place in Iraq.

Almost every night the two Ar Ramadi posts take incoming mortar fire. U.S. mortar teams fire back.

“You’ll hear one coming in,” said SWC Michael Romero from 133’s Ar Ramadi detachment. “Then you’ll hear 10 going out.”

Escort duty is dangerous. Four 133 Seabees have been wounded in attacks on convoys. At least two have been shipped home for treatment. On a trip between the Ar Ramadi bases, an improvised explosive device exploded right in front of Romero’s truck. He was uninjured, but badly shaken up.

“It made me never want to go on a convoy again,” he said.

But he doesn’t have much choice. The battalion’s 650 personnel are scattered all over Al Anbar in small detachments that are constantly changing. As new projects come up, detachments fold into each other or split into still smaller detachments. That means a lot of convoys, a lot of cold night flights on breezy 40-year-old CH-46 helicopters and a lot of waiting around on dusty concrete floors for connections.

For Torres’ runway project, much of 133 will converge on Al Taqaddum – assuming, of course, that the TQ detachment gets its batch plant up and running.

But one Seabee at TQ won’t be there when the battalion tackles the runway. BUCN Bryan Martin, a scrawny kid from Waynesburg, Penn., is at Al Taqaddum only briefly before returning to his regular haunt, Rawa, the mean little outpost on the Syrian border.

Taking a break from building huts for the Army drone unit, Martin describes Rawa: “We live in tents, we shower in shower tents. There’s a lot more moon dust. We eat MREs and T-rats.” He grins. “I like it.”

Seabees thrive in the most difficult environments. And they always leave a place a little nicer than they found it, whether it be some nasty Iraqi desert base, an airfield, a relative vacation spot such as Rota, Spain, or even their own hometown. The battalion is based in Gulfport, Miss., alongside the Navy’s three other East Coast construction battalions.

In late August, Hurricane Katrina hit Gulfport. The battalion was home at the time, working up for its deployment. Some personnel fled ahead of the storm, but others toughed it out at home or on post. Emerging from their shelters, the Seabees saw devastation that many describe as worse than anything in Iraq.

UTl Keith Lefebvre lost a $200,000 home. So did CEl Charles Jacobs, who works alongside Lefebvre in the TQ base maintenance section.

Jacobs was insured. Lefebvre wasn’t.

“I’m starting over,” he said.

Impending deployment or no, 133 swung into action in Gulfport, clearing debris, building shelters and coordinating with relief agencies. On and off the clock, the Seabees worked to rebuild their town. Romero answered so many calls from friends and neighbors that he was soon booked solid.

“I had to start saying no,” he grimaces.

UT3 William Ladner was fresh out of boot camp and newly married when he fled Katrina. Returning to town as soon as the winds died, he found himself working in a distribution center handing out supplies. A month later he was in Iraq; four months later he celebrated his 21st birthday at Al Taqaddum. His young wife is none too thrilled with the deployment and the relentless pace of Ladner’s work, but he just shrugs and smiles. His dad was a Seabee. He knew what he was getting into.

“I miss grass,” Romero said. “1 miss mowing it.”

On the cold morning of Jan. 21, he’s walking the muddy perimeter of his one project at Ramadi, a fortified chow hall serving 4,000 meals a day. On one side, EOCN Burley Geiger and EO2 Eric Lockwood climb atop dirt-filled wire-mesh Hesco barriers to pour hand-mixed concrete, by hand, onto the hall’s roof.

The nearly complete facility had been leaking, Romero said. Plus, he adds, the concrete will keep out the rats. As for all the manual labor, Romero explains, it’s been hard getting equipment to such a remote location.

“We don’t have the convenience of ordering up a cement truck,” he said.

It’s been a big job, occupying a crew of 20 Seabees for three mondis, “and 700 bags of concrete,” Lockwood adds.

Inside, the facility looks more like the underground tunnels of the Maginot Line than it does the expansive well-lit chow halls that are typical of most bases in Iraq. Instead of one big bay seating everyone together, the Ar Ramadi chow hall has seven narrow bays criss-crossing each other. Diners sit nearly concealed under low-hanging wooden beams.

The walls are wooden and conceal several feet of earth and wire mesh, enough to absorb the mortar rounds that insurgents routinely drop on the base. Even the roof is earthen and, according to Romero, it could take a direct hit without harm to anyone inside.

The fortified chow hall has been a priority of local commanders since an attack by a suspected suicide bomber on a U.S. dining facility in Mosul in December 2004 killed 22 people, including one Seabee and 13 other U.S. service members, four U.S. civilian contractors and four members of the Iraqi security Forces.

For Romero, the job is personal. His friend, Seabee Joel Baldwin from Naval Construction Battalion Seven, was the lone member of the U.S. Navy killed in the Mosul attack.

Back at Al Taqaddum, Lefebvre and Jacobs are taking their work a little personally, too. Standing outside their shared office, adjacent to the runway where chartered Russian-made cargo jets scream in for hard landings, the two shake their heads as they describe their working conditions.

“We can get maintenance problems as simple as replacing a lightbulb to as complex as rewiring an entire grid,” Lefebvre sighs. “Everything is reactive here. There’s not much we can do to schedule work.”

He and his crew work for as long as 12 hours a day, every day.

Still, things could be worse, Lefebvre said. They could be like Haiti, where 133 deployed in 1997.

“It was harder to get stuff there,” he said.

Jacobs jumps in. “Electricity here is a mess. It’s a disaster. We get six to 10 work orders a day.”

Part of the problem is that the underlying pre-invasion electrical grid at Al Taqaddum was never very reliable to begin with and, like much of the Iraqi infrastructure, it is deteriorating rapidly. On top of that, successive generations of resident units each have applied their own quick fixes – “contingency wiring,” Jacobs calls them – creating a morass of tangled wires that represents a major fire hazard.

“We do what we can to make it operational,” he said. “And we maintain a lot of generators. But there’s a thousand and one problems you can have with generators.”

It isn’t easy, but the Seabees of NMCB 133, especially the chiefs, seem to love their jobs. Ladner, the son of a Seabee, even delayed his enlistment by a year to guarantee there was a slot for him in a construction battalion.

Leaving the skeletal batch plant at Al Taqqadum, Torres describes the twisted path he took to the Seabees when he enlisted 19 years ago.

“I wanted to do naval intel. But they told me 1 couldn’t. They gave me options. The first was boiler tech. Then they went, ‘How about Seabees?'”

The intervening decades – with stints in Guam, Scotland, Alaska, Antarctica and now Al Anbar – have been rewarding, but it was last year, after Katrina damaged his home in Oceans Spring, Miss., that Torres’ decision really paid off.

“I did all the repairs myself,” he said.

The Seabees’ inherent obsession with self-sufficiency fuels 133’s work at Al Taqaddum and in all of Al Anbar province. It’s not good enough for Torres that he can get concrete from the Army’s mobile batch plant at TQ. The Seabees’ customers depend on 133 to get important but thankless jobs done in a timely manner and to spec.

Torres can’t count on the Army to show the same tenacity and slavish devotion to customers’ material needs that the Seabees demonstrate every day.

There are questions about the quality of the local gravel supply. Good concrete requires good clean gravel, and the stuff at Al Taqaddum might not be up to the task. Getting replacement material won’t be easy, but Torres says he’s confident that, somehow, the Seabees will manage. They always do.

By DAVID AXE, Special Correspondent

Copyright Navy League of the United States Mar 2006

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