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A truck crosses the bridge for southbound traffic at a site north of Baghdad, Iraq, where the 38th Engineer Company has been spending a lot of time in the sun recently. It took the unit from Hanau, Germany about 100 hours to put up its eighth bridge in Iraq.

A truck crosses the bridge for southbound traffic at a site north of Baghdad, Iraq, where the 38th Engineer Company has been spending a lot of time in the sun recently. It took the unit from Hanau, Germany about 100 hours to put up its eighth bridge in Iraq. (Kent Harris / S&S)

Just about all U.S. troops in Iraq these days are trying to build bridges, narrowing the gaps between the local population and the thousands of Americans who remain in country after removing Saddam Hussein from power.

But there are those, such as the 38th Engineer Company from Hanau, Germany, who are physically building bridges in the war-torn country.

“Bridges to me are real, and they are also symbolic,” said Maj. Gen. Carl Strock, deputy director for operations for the Coalition Provisional Authority, at a ceremony Saturday north of Baghdad.

The Iraqis who patiently waited in line to cross the Tigris River seemed to be more interested in the concrete — or in this case, steel — kind of bridge.

Traffic might have been a little slower across the reconstructed bridge than it was before the original one was destroyed during the conflict, but it gave motorists a shorter route to the north than the one they had since the span’s destruction.

“This is the first bridge to connect Baghdad to the north of Iraq,” said Baghdassar Avedisian, an Iraqi engineer who studied at the University of Michigan years ago.

Avedisian said the bridge — which replaces a temporary structure the military erected to get its vehicles across the river — will help bring more trade from surrounding countries, such as Turkey, Iran and Syria.

“The real aspect of this bridge is that it’s going to make it easier for the people in this region to move around,” Strock said in his remarks.

It took more than 100 members of the 38th about 100 hours to take down the temporary structure and put up the two new spans. Capt. Carrington Stoffels, the company commander, said it would last “as long as they need it to last.”

First Sgt. Ian Greaves said his men are getting to be expert bridge-builders in Iraq. It was the eighth crossing they’ve worked on since arriving in country.

“The heat was the biggest factor,” he said, when asked about any particular challenges the bridge presented.

“It was about 118 degrees out here,” Stoffels added. So the engineers avoided working during the hottest part of the day, but still managed to get the bridge completed in what a military handout referred to as “record” time.

There’s a bit of mystery on how the original bridge was damaged. The part of the span that actually crosses the river wasn’t destroyed. But a huge chunk of the bridge on the Baghdad side of the structure was missing when U.S. forces first tried to cross it.

Avedisian said he knows how it happened. He said an Iraqi armored vehicle was hiding under the span, trying to avoid getting targeted by U.S. aircraft. But one U.S. pilot sent a missile under the structure to successfully blow up the vehicle.

Avedisian said there were many explosives stored near the vehicle. And when it exploded, it sent off a chain reaction.

Stoffels said his company is happy to help out the Iraqis. But he said they wouldn’t mind a chance to escape the sun and relax for a few days.

“Hopefully, we’re taking a breather,” he said. “We’ve been going nonstop putting in bridges.”

Of both kinds.

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for 40 years.

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