Army engineers built 'Key West 2.0' after Islamic State destruction

U.S. Army engineers are pictured here building wooden structures on Qayara Airfield West, Iraq. The base outside Mosul, was destroyed by Islamic State militants who occupied it since 2014, and by subsequent U.S. airstrikes


By CHAD GARLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 16, 2016

QAYARA AIRFIELD WEST, Iraq — Deployment to Iraq was the “final unknown” for Sgt. 1st Class Michael Pike, whose Army career has spanned two decades and involved assignments to Korea, Japan and Germany.

The 40-year-old, who hails from Salem, Mo., trained thousands of engineers who eventually deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq, and most of his peers have been to Iraq five or six times. But he had never been. “I’m an oddball,” he said.

Then this summer President Barack Obama approved sending 560 more troops to Iraq to rebuild this razed airfield about 40 miles south of Mosul. Pike turned down a promotion that would have kept him at his old unit and volunteered to go.

In early September, he arrived here feeling pressure to prove himself as a first-time deployer and the top noncommissioned officer among the roughly 100 soldiers of the 282nd Engineer Company — 70 percent of whom didn’t know each other until months earlier. Given about six months to stabilize and set up the base, they got it done in two, earning 27 combat action badges in the process, he said.

“It was pretty exciting there for a while,” Pike said, describing daily rocket or mortar attacks. One, a complex attack, came on a night when engineers were building a helicopter landing zone for medical evacuation flights.

Known as “Key West” by U.S. troops who used it during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the base serves as a logistics hub for the Iraqi-led campaign to retake Iraq’s second-largest city. It’s also home to batteries of coalition artillery and rockets that often thunder and rip late at night. But it was a wasteland when the first convoy of U.S. troops arrived on Aug. 26. Three days later, when 1st Lt. Brayton Kline of Ozark, Mo., came with the second convoy, there was little more to the base than about 20 tents and a “green can” housing a base defense operations center, he said. He described a scene of partially destroyed buildings and bunkers amid a not-so-tranquil sea of “moon dust.”

As engineers cleared away the debris over the next several weeks, bulldozers occasionally hit on buried ordnance and set it off, though without serious damage or injuries, Kline said.

“It’s hard to even imagine what it was like,” he said. Driving through the base in November with Pike, he looked over a tidy rebuilt area with a few buildings clustered on a flat, walled-in expanse. Mounds of debris still cluttered some areas, but much of the critical work was done, and crews were planning to make a field where troops could play sports.

The destruction started with Islamic State sabotage and was pretty much completed after U.S. airstrikes against the militants, Pike said. But he had expected worse. They were prepared to live in foxholes beside their vehicles.

Still, they did have to subsist on Meals, Ready to Eat and do laundry in buckets for that first month, before they set up showers, latrines and kitchens.

“It was a huge deal when we got hot chow,” Pike said.

Their sun-up-to-sun-down schedule soon earned them a reputation as the first to breakfast and the last to dinner, he said.

Those two hot meals are prepared daily — except on Sunday when only dinner is hot — by “just a handful” of cooks, said 1st Lt. Melissa Branderhorst of Hudsonville, Mich., executive officer for the 526th Brigade Support Battalion’s G Company. The unit is responsible for ensuring troops get the food, fuel, ammunition and maintenance support they need at about a half-dozen locations in northern Iraq.

Cobbled together on short notice because of how quickly the Iraqi-led coalition took Qayara West, the lone company is supporting a “brigade-level fight” she said — four times its typical workload.

The unit’s Iraq veterans say this deployment is different from earlier ones in the country, Branderhorst said; some of their work, such as convoying to new sites and establishing bases from nothing, has not been done by U.S. forces here in a long time.

In rebuilding Key West from nearly scratch, Pike found “an engineer’s paradise,” without a bureaucracy to slow his crews down.

Much of their work involved sorting the destruction into piles of usable pieces and useless debris, aided by ordnance disposal crews and defended by soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division.

“We call it Key West 2.0,” Pike said. Using an acronym for the militant group, he explained: “ISIS reduced it, the army’s reusing it, and we’re recycling it.”

Engineers “harvested” 3,000 serviceable concrete blast walls from the rubble, saving about $1.5 million in materials costs, he said.

Also amid the rubble was so much steel rebar, concertina wire and remnants of “Hesco barriers” that crews carried bolt cutters and frequently had to cut the junk from their vehicle treads, Kline said.

Some of their equipment is so old, they had to pull replacement parts from the husks of blown-up vehicles left on base from Operation Iraqi Freedom, he said.

Along the way, care packages with candies and sweet letters from grade-schoolers back home helped bolster them, Pike said.

One letter from his own son, who had just joined the Army, came addressed “to Sgt. Pike from Pvt. Pike.”

“It was probably the only time I shed a tear out here,” the elder Pike said.

Now, nearing that career’s end, Pike said he may have finally answered that lingering question, one many soldiers have but not all can answer, about serving in a war zone.

“It looks like now I’m going to walk out with everybody I walked in with.”

Twitter: @chadgarland

A destroyed building stands near the entrance to Qayara Airfield West in Iraq, an example of the destruction in the area caused by Islamic State fighters and coalition efforts to defeat them. U.S. Army engineers who helped build said they cleared tons of concrete rubble and other debris from the area.

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