Danger lurks in the roadside debris Army engineers are tasked with clearing in Iraq
BALAD, Iraq — For U.S. Army engineers who operate heavy equipment, Iraq is paradise.
“We can’t really do a lot back in the States because of environmental regulations and other restrictions, but when we’re in Iraq, we can do it all,” said Spc. David Flowers, 31, of Baltimore.
“This country is like heaven for engineers. We can destroy stuff, level it and rebuild it. That’s one of the benefits of our job.”
For the past four months, Flowers and fellow members of the 15th Engineer Company have focused their construction and demolition skills on a tattered collection of roads in north-central Iraq.
Armed with a collection of bulldozers, bucket loaders, road graders, ground compactors and cement-mixing equipment, the company’s main mission has been to repair roadside bomb craters and clear roadway shoulders of debris and vegetation that can hide insurgent gunmen or explosives.
The engineers also hope that their handiwork will promote good will among local Iraqis.
“It benefits everybody,” Flowers said. “When we clean things up, the locals can see that we care about them, that we’re willing to work with them.”
The road work has taken the 15th Engineers into cities and pastures throughout Diyala province, one of northern Iraq’s more restive areas. They have encountered roadside bombs, snipers and small-arms attacks.
“The farmlands are quiet. The cities aren’t so quiet,” said Capt. Clay McVay, the company commander.
Recently, a 3rd Platoon engineer was wounded when a sniper hidden in tall grass shot him through the thigh. The bullet passed through the sleeve of Sgt. Lawrence Davidson, 26, of Syracuse, N.Y., who was standing beside the wounded soldier.
Davidson, who said he felt the bullet swat his shirt sleeve before striking the other soldier, said he’s not quite sure what to do with his shirt, which he placed in the bottom of his duffel bag and hasn’t put on again. “I’m not sure if it’s bad luck or not,” he said.
The gunman was caught and is to face trial soon, a development that pleases soldiers in the unit.
The 15th Engineers are attached to the Fort Knox, Ky.-based 19th Engineer Battalion, which falls under the 25th Infantry Division’s Task Force Lightning. While most of the battalion is based at Contingency Operating Base Speicher, near Tikrit, the 15th is quartered at LSA Anaconda.
The work is difficult for both the soldiers and their machines, because much of the equipment has been used by previous units for the last three years. The wear and tear has led to frequent breakdowns.
“For me, the hardest part of this job is putting my soldiers in this equipment every day,” said 1st Lt. Daniel Gentry, 23, of Fort Payne, Ala. “There’s just so much work involved in keeping these machines operating.”
During a mission Thursday, Gentry and his platoon traveled to the outskirts of Muqdadiya to clear the shoulders of a rural road that bordered a deep canal.
The job was particularly difficult because of the canal on one side of the road and a steep slope on the other. During the work, the platoon’s grader was damaged when it slid off the side of the road and down an embankment. Flowers, the operator, escaped injury.
Overall, engineers said the mission was far quieter than one a week earlier in downtown Baqouba. On that day, at least two insurgents fired at the engineers and Iraqi personnel at the job site.
Pfc. James Lollis, 20, of Hominy, Okla., is the company’s sole medic, and his actions in the firefight earned him a combat medic’s badge.
Lollis said he was sitting in a Humvee when a gunman opened fire on an Iraqi police officer and an Iraqi army engineer who was operating an unarmored bucket loader at the site.
The engineers returned fire, hitting the gunman. As Lollis ran from his Humvee to treat the wounded Iraqi policeman, who had been hit in the upper thigh, a second gunman opened fire.
Lollis treated the police officer, then went in search of the operator of the bucket loader, who had suffered facial wounds when an insurgent’s bullet shattered the bucket loader’s windshield. Lollis found him taking cover behind a 5-ton truck and treated him.
“I’d never been under fire until then,” Lollis said. “Up until then the worst injuries I treated were guys with broken knuckles or post-blast headaches from [roadside bombs].”
Despite such episodes, some engineers said they were happy to be working on Iraq’s roadways.
“If I can get on a piece of equipment, I love it,” said Sgt. David Turner, 34, of Niles, Mich. “That’s what I love about the Army. If I stayed in a piece of equipment all day I’d be happy.”
Turner, who is on his third deployment to Iraq, said the work he’s doing now seems more dangerous than when he operated heavy equipment for the 3rd Infantry Division on its push into Baghdad during the invasion in 2003.
“During the push up, I was in a vehicle and there were tanks all around me,” Turner said. “Now, I’m on the ground. It’s a bit more intimidating when you’re on the ground and there’s nothing between you and a bullet.”
As Turner spoke, he scanned the horizons of the rural area in which his platoon was working. He said he was happy to see a detail of 1st Cavalry Division soldiers patrolling the area.
“That helps take my mind off what’s going on around me,” Turner said. “It helps me concentrate on the job I need to do. It’s a lot easier to work like that.”
Engineers face danger from their own equipment, too
BALAD, Iraq — It looked like a tree falling in slow motion.
Spc. David Flowers of the 15th Engineer Company was powering a massive, 17-ton armored grader down a narrow, rural road on the outskirts of Muqdadiya when the machine began slipping down a steep embankment.
“He’s definitely going over,” a soldier with the company said as a cloud of dust began to rise from the machine’s 12-foot leveling blade. “Yup, there he goes.”
As Flowers braced himself for the impact, the machine slowly tipped sideways, then toppled into a thicket of dusty brush.
The operator’s cab had barely touched the ground before his fellow 3rd Platoon soldiers were at the scene and unscrewing the bolts that secured the grader’s bulletproof windshield.
Flowers jettisoned the windshield with a swift kick and climbed out, unscathed.
“I had a feeling I was gonna go for a ride today,” he said with a grin.
The accident occurred Thursday during one of the 15th Engineer’s routine “route sanitation” missions in north-central Iraq. The missions are aimed at clearing debris and vegetation from the shoulders of local roads in order to improve visibility and prevent insurgents from hiding gunmen or explosives there.
Thursday’s mission posed a particular challenge to engineers because it was bordered by a deep canal on one side and a steep embankment on the other.
“We’ve never done a road like this one before,” said Capt. Clay McVay, 28, of Louisa, Va. “There is not a lot of room to work.”
When it comes to mishaps like the grader rollover, Flowers said the operator had to be upbeat. In this case, he said he was glad the grader hadn’t toppled on the opposite side of the road and into the canal. He was also thankful that the machine hadn’t tumbled onto a roadside bomb.
“When you feel it going like that, you just have to go along for the ride,” Flowers said. “You don’t want to jump or nothin’. You just ride it out.”
— Monte Morin