Combat engineers: Valuable asset to U.S., Iraqi security operations in western Iraq
CAMP KOREAN VILLAGE, Iraq (July 28, 2006) — While sectarian violence appears to be on the rise in other areas of Iraq, U.S. Marines in western Al Anbar province are beefing up security at U.S. military camps here, which will eventually be turned over to Iraqi Forces.
A team of Marine combat engineers attached to the Twentynine Palms, Calif.-based 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion spent the past several months keeping roads free of improvised explosive devices and strengthening buildings and forward operating bases to keep U.S. and Iraqi military forces secure in this region.
“We’re jacks of all trades,” said Cpl. Joshua T. Raney, a 21-year-old combat engineer attached to the battalion’s engineer detachment. “Without us, a lot of weapons caches, and IEDs would not have been found, and a lot of stuff wouldn’t have been built- we just make things a little easier for everyone.”
The engineers, trained in demolition, mine detection, and construction, operate in this vast desert stretching from the Jordanian border about 120 miles east towards the Euphrates River.
Most of the engineers’ time is focused on beefing up security measures at the various U.S. military bases throughout Anbar’s western desert region. In January, engineers built an eight-foot high dirt berm around Rutbah to curb smuggling and insurgent activity.
To gain access to or leave this city of 25,000, vehicles must pass through one of three traffic control points, which are manned by Iraqi soldiers, ensuring everything that goes in and comes out is screened- limiting insurgent activity.
Rutbah is considered by U.S. military officials in Iraq as a strategic location for insurgents and smugglers, since it is located astride two main supply routes – one from Jordan, and one from Syria. Traveling east from the Syrian or Jordanian border, the supply routes lead through Rutbah and continue on to the heart of the Sunni Triangle – Ar Ramadi, Al Fallujah, and Baghdad.
Furthermore, with the gradual turnover of areas of responsibility to Iraqi forces, the engineers have focused some of their efforts on fortifying Iraqi border forts and fighting positions throughout western Al Anbar province. In Akashat, a small town near the Iraqi-Syrian border, the engineers built several bunkers so Iraqi soldiers could monitor the town’s traffic.
“Our job is to make sure the guys standing post have a strong and safe position- they depend on us for it,” said Raney, who is on his second deployment to Iraq. “While this is a relatively quiet [area], you never know when something bad might happen.”
Rutbah’s three entrances and exits are controlled by Iraqi soldiers, supervised by Marines from the battalion- since its construction; it has received a few improvements by the current crop of engineers.
“We added a lane for water trucks at [the most heavily trafficked entrance] and took four days to reinforce a few gaps in the berm,” said Cpl. Shane R. McConnell, 23, from Rosebush, Mich. “The good people in Rutbah have no problems with going through the checkpoints to get in and out of town, but the ones up to no good, they are looking for the spots in the berm to try and get out undetected.”
But McConnell says his and the rest of the detachment’s actions are making sneaking in and out of the city more difficult, “by adding a few barriers and a lot of dirt.”
In addition to the fortifications, combat engineers are keeping coalition forces safer by disposing of unexploded ordnance. Since their arrival in March, the engineers disposed of more than 500 pounds of ordnance – mortars, rockets, bombs, and other munitions.
“We’re cutting down on the insurgents’ munitions,” said Raney. “For every piece we blow up, that is one less IED.”
McConnell, the detachment’s sole heavy equipment operator, says his job is crucial in to the battalion’s various construction and fortification projects.
“Without me, 3rd LAR would have a lot of shoveling to do,” said McConnell with a grin.
The combat engineer detachment, completing tasks usually performed by a 30-man engineer platoon, makes up in experience what it lacks in sheer numbers.
“[The battalion] was lucky to get such an experienced and well-trained group of Marines,” said Capt. John C. Morgan, 27, the battalion’s engineer officer. “Not only do they bring their engineer set of skills to the table, but are also able to assimilate with [the infantrymen] and serve as provisional riflemen at the same time.”
Playing the role of the infantryman is crucial to the mission of the engineer, and those skills have come into play for a few of the detachment’s members, said Morgan.
“When we were in Habbiniyah, there was a high level of contact, every day something would happen,” said Cpl. Paul Kozlowski, from Bowie, Md., a combat engineer. “[Engineers] attached to grunt units are generally at the tip of the spear. We make sure people can get where they need to go, be it inside a house or over a bridge, we can’t do our job sitting on base- we have to be proficient as infantrymen to do our job.”
Sometimes, their job requires them to bring the muscle to breach doors and allow Coalition and Iraqi Forces to enter buildings by force to search for insurgents, but most operations don’t require such force.
“We have found that the doors are usually unlocked,” said Morgan. “We try to minimize collateral damage as much as possible.”
With their deployment coming to an end, the detachment will head back to their home base in Camp Lejeune, N.C., knowing they helped support both U.S. and Iraqi military forces.
“I know my work and the work of [the engineers] has had an effect on the future of Iraq,” said McConnell. “We are keeping Marines safe, Iraqis safe, Iraqi soldiers safe and the town of Rutbah stays quiet because insurgents know they can’t get their stuff in or out.”