Engineers work all night, all day building outposts
Stars and Stripes March 9, 2008
MOSUL, Iraq — The chow truck came out just after dark. Under the weak glare of flashlights, soldiers moved like ghosts as they unloaded green plastic bins full of baked chicken and rice.
Nineteen soldiers with the 77th Engineering Company, from Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., came by in pairs, spooning up the chow onto paper plates. Steam rose from the hot food as the night air grew chilly.
They’d been sawing boards and hammering nails all day, building a set of barracks for a company of Iraqi soldiers at a new combat outpost on the west side of town. The hot meal was a welcome break.
It could’ve been just like a construction site back home, except for the threat of sniper fire or the occasional mortar round.
“We’ve been here about two and half days,” said Staff Sgt. Jamie Horton, 34, of Richland, Mo. “We’ve got about another day and a half before we finish.”
In many ways, construction engineers in Iraq are just like gypsy construction crews back in the States. Except here, they carry guns, ride in big armored vehicles from one job site to the next, and they go from town to town, building combat outposts instead of houses.
“We work night and day both,” said Horton.
For the past few months, the 77th Engineers have been working their way from Diyala province, north through Iraq, building combat outposts as they go.
“We’ve worked on about 12 big ones between Baqouba, Samarra and here,” said Capt. Jennifer Agnew, 27, of Champaign, Ill.
It usually takes about two weeks to build one of the outposts from start to finish, Agnew and other soldiers said. First one crew grades the site, if that’s needed. Then they enclose it in tall concrete blast walls and earthen barriers. Another crew comes in and builds the barracks. The latrine is usually an outhouse with a burn barrel underneath.
The crews try to speed up the process by having the walls prefabricated at the big U.S. base in Balad, then shipping them out on flatbed trucks, said 1st Lt. David W. Boyd, 30, of Billings, Mont.
They try to prefabricate the trusses, too, whenever possible. But just as often, they build them on-site, he added.
Military construction crews in Iraq face many of the same challenges they face back home. Bad weather can delay a project for days. There are always supply shortages of one type or another to deal with.
The security situation here presents its own set of challenges.
“If the insurgents come in and blow it up, then it takes longer,” Agnew said.
Two days of heavy rain last week turned the site into a muddy mess. But that’s not unusual for this time of year in Iraq. The around-the-clock presence of several Bradley fighting vehicles and Abrams tanks usually keeps the bad guys away.
The occasional potshot still rings out every now and then. Shortly after dinner, the crack-crack-crack of rifle fire shattered the night, sending red tracer rounds across the black sky.
Several U.S. soldiers swore it sounded like M-4 rifle fire, but the Iraqis insisted that it was an AK-47. It was unclear where the fire came from or even in which direction it was aimed.
An Iraqi soldier up in a watchtower let loose with a short burst from a PK machine gun, as if he were saying, “Cool it, pal,” to the unseen shooter. There were no more shots that night.
A few soldiers built a fire of scrap wood, and two more with nail guns climbed back on the roof of one barracks to finish nailing in the trusses. They would lay down the decking on the roof in the morning.
Some of them drifted off to find a place to sleep, while others gathered around the fire, smoking cigarettes, trading stories, joking with one another. A soldier made a makeshift chessboard out of plywood.
Boyd started telling of his pre-Army days as a platinum miner back in Arizona.
“Here we go again,” a soldier groaned. They’d clearly heard the stories before.
If somebody had broken out a bottle of whiskey at that moment, it might’ve been possible for a moment to imagine they were all at a hunting camp back home and not in a war.