Army dive team sets demolitions, aids WMD search
TIKRIT, Iraq — When a forklift fell off a floating bridge and plunged into the Tigris River last week, an elite team of Army divers went to Saddam Hussein’s hometown to help.
Muddy lakes and dirty rivers are no trouble for the 74th Engineer Detachment, a dive team from Fort Eustis, Va., which has spent much of the war plunging into turbulent waters to work where few soldiers can.
“These guys are truly amazing,” said Col. Gregg Martin, commander of the 130th Engineer Brigade, the team’s higher headquarters in Iraq.
The 22-man crew, which goes by the call sign “Poseidon,” is one of five dive teams out of Fort Eustis. A sixth team is based in Hawaii.
During peacetime, Army divers clear harbors and conduct underwater surveys. But in Iraq, they set demolitions, search for weapons of mass destruction and recover dead soldiers.
“We’re jacks-of-all-trades,” said Sgt. Jeremiah Tyler, 26, of Panama City Beach, Fla.
While preparing to dive, Tyler said he and others look to their comrades remaining above the surface to keep them safe.
“If you worry on the surface, you screw up your job on the bottom,” Tyler said. “You’ve got to have a clear mind because a slipup can be deadly.”
Every aspect of their job is dangerous.
During dives, the soldiers must put their private lives behind them to focus on their mission.
“My wedding ring is in my bag,” said Tyler, prior to diving. “If something happens, give it to my wife.”
Equipped with scuba gear, divers descend to the river bottom. Fellow divers on the surface hold a tending line, which relays signals and also keeps divers from floating downstream with the current. Sometimes the team uses sonar to capture an ultrasound picture below the waterline.
Once in the murky Tigris, divers cannot see their hands in front of their faces. Jabbing a knife into the river bottom, they feel their way about, crawling through the muck, at times fighting strong currents. They flatten their bodies and make fanning motion with their arms, sort of like making snow angels, only on their bellies.
They’ve become experts at finding their way in the dark and identifying unknown objects with their hands, said Sgt. Matt Gooch, of Tulsa, Okla.
“Imagine going in a dark closet, then covering your eyes,” Gooch said. “You could put anyone on the team in a dark room, throw things to them, and they could tell what it was.”
After about an hour, divers return to the surface exhausted.
In April, team members fought strong currents to clear underwater obstacles at a Tikrit bridge site and conducted underwater surveys. In early May, the team detonated explosives on an Iraqi bridge near Tikrit that was half-destroyed during air attacks. Once sections were blown, bridge-building engineers repaired the roadway with a temporary span.
When land-based combat engineers see the divers in action, they are often in awe. The underwater specialists are revered among fellow engineers.
“It’s hard to believe they do the things I do, except underwater,” said Spc. Mike Chase, 23, a combat engineer from Portland, Maine. “It’s pretty amazing.”
When a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crashed near Samarra, team members helped recover equipment, weapons and personal effects belonging to the crewmembers who died in the crash.
Working from Army intelligence tips, the team also searched several lakes in Iraq for weapons of mass destruction.
One extensive search took place in a large lake northeast of Baghdad, where a civilian reported seeing something dumped in the water. At one point, sonar detected something divers were sure were the tops of missiles.
“It turned out to be a peculiar rock formation,” Tyler said. “You want to be the team that comes through and find what everyone’s been looking for. Obviously, we didn’t find any.”
Divers joke with each other like brothers. Like any tight team, their varying backgrounds add to the mix.
Leading the team, 1st Lt. P.J. Inskeep, a West Point graduate from Harrisburg, Pa., is qualified to dive, but he spends much of his time gathering information for the team, finding rides and running interference with the regular units they support.
Growing up in Colombia, Spc. Salim Awad, 26, endured hardships. His mother was killed by guerrillas in 1999. In 2001, he moved to San Diego, hoping to join the military and learn skills that someday might help him return to his homeland and fight against the people who killed his mother.
He’s the Casanova of the team, disappearing during free time to chat with girls on base.
At the sunken forklift, Staff Sgt. Bobbie Irvin, 27, a quiet professional from Galveston, Texas, tossed a plastic bottle upstream to access the current’s speed, while Gooch timed how long it took to pass by the length of a floating bridge block. Through mathematical calculations, Gooch figured the water to be traveling at 6.15 feet per second, faster than their regulations allow divers to work safely.
“There’s no way you could hold onto anything, let alone do any work,” Inskeep said.
The team agreed that in six months, when the Tigris subsides, the forklift could easily be recovered. But it was not worth risking lives to save equipment that would not endanger the nearby bridge.
“For certain jobs,” Tyler said, “if there was a body down there, we could do it.”
Drowned soldier not left behind
TIKRIT, Iraq — A few weeks ago, soldiers from the 74th Engineer Detachment dive team faced one of their most difficult assignments to date: the recovery of a drowned soldier from the Tigris River.
Around midnight Dec. 9, Staff Sgt. Aaron Reese of the Ohio-based 135th Military Police Company fell off a patrol boat. Spc. Todd Bates stripped off his gear and jumped into the cold water to save his squad leader.
On Dec. 10, the seven dive team members were at the 130th Engineer Brigade, their higher headquarters in Balad, Iraq, when 1st Lt. P.J. Inskeep learned that the two soldiers had drowned. Inskeep steered his crew toward the scene to assist search efforts.
Loaded down with combat gear, Reese was found the next day by Iraqis, not far from where he entered the water, Inskeep said. The Army divers began the search for Bates, which lasted two grueling weeks.
Battling strong currents, divers probed through sewage and debris in the filthy river. They floated through fishnets and trash, pulled fishhooks from their hands, and encountered several dead animals.
Each thing they encountered was identified by touch. All the while, divers faced the challenge of knowing the next object that crossed their path could be the face of a fellow soldier, Inskeep said.
Within two days, the divers had searched the entire accident area. Still, Bates was missing. They turned to sunken vessels nearby, but still came up empty-handed.
At night, when they returned to base, divers faced the military police soldiers who were counting on them to find Bates. The unit was scheduled to go home Dec. 23, and Bates’ friends could not stand the thought of leaving him behind, Inskeep said.
“It was hard to face these soldiers day in and day out without an answer on where their friend was,” Inskeep said. “It was also drawing nearer to Christmas.”
Using a hand-fashioned dragging tool, engineer boats stirred up the river bottom. Soldiers searched for 10 miles by boat and walked the banks searching in weeds that grow along the banks. Helicopters searched from overhead.
As the search continued into its second week, divers consulted an expert from Niagara Falls, who suggested they float a dead animal to find where Bates may have drifted.
Meanwhile, the Navy dispatched a team with a powerful sonar to aid the search.
Troops passed out fliers to locals, offering a $2,500 reward for help.
On Dec. 23, search teams headed out on a freezing cold day as the military police unit prepared to leave Iraq. Rain soaked soldiers as they rode to the river in the back of a five-ton truck.
About 1 p.m., an engineer came over the radio saying, “We got him.”
Bates’ body was found floating under a bridge, about a mile downstream from where he dove in to rescue his buddy nearly two weeks earlier.
Two divers, Sgt. Kyle Dodge and Staff Sgt. Weston Cox, pulled Bates from the water.
“I was overjoyed in the sense that we had finally located him and that he was now going to be returned to his family so that he could be properly buried,” Dodge wrote in his report. “I was also sad in the fact that we had lost a good soldier who gave his life to try and save a fellow soldier.”
— Rick Scavetta