Seabees keep low profile scouting out projects in Iraq
FALLUJAH, Iraq — The convoy rolled at 8:30 a.m. and as usual it would be rolling through some dicey territory.
The troops had already been briefed on what to do if the convoy was ambushed, or if one of the Humvees broke down, or if a car pulled alongside one of the Humvees and blew up.
“The latest thing is for an enemy vehicle to try to split the convoy,” the troops are told. “They try to destroy half the convoy and capture the other half.”
Construction projects in Iraq have to start somewhere, and they often start with a stealth mission by the Seabees Engineering Reconnaissance Team, or SERT, the tip of the Seabee spear.
A SERT team travels quickly to the sites of future projects, takes pictures and notes, transmits the data using satellite technology, then high-tails it back to the safety of a coalition base.
Engineers will use the information provided by the SERT to decide how much labor, material and time it will take to build a bridge, erect a camp or make a broken building usable.
“We give them enough information to get their plans started,” said Chief Petty Officer Clinton George of Douglasville, Ga.
George’s SERT team belongs to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 74 but is attached to the I Marine Expeditionary Force Engineering Group, whose job is to build what’s needed in central and western Iraq.
This day’s SERT mission would be simple but potentially dangerous.
The six Humvees convoyed to a property on the opposite side of Fallujah, a combustible Sunni city 50 miles west of Baghdad. The destination was a two-acre site with a small, dilapidated building to be used by Iraqi security forces.
As always, the trip tested the troops’ alertness and nerves. The Humvees passed disabled vehicles that could have been rigged to explode. A man who was carrying two sacks of something darted across the road between Humvees. He kept going and so did the convoy.
Upon arrival, the armed Humvees fanned out around the perimeter of the property, guns pointing outward.
Atop one of them, Petty Officer 2nd Class Robert Czekner, a 24-year-old utilityman from Catasauqua, Pa., watched for anything suspicious.
“People on rooftops, people grouped together, vehicles that come to a sudden stop,” Czekner said. “And, of course, gunshots.”
He watched an empty house 150 yards away from behind his machine gun, which was ready to inflict much damage with its 7.62 mm rounds, Czekner was asked what he’d do if someone appeared in a window and pointed something his way.
“If I had reasonable suspicion that it was [a rocket-propelled grenade], then I’d open up,” he said.
The SERT team had not yet opened up during its 70 missions over the past 3½ months but it could. Seabees who do construction work in a war zone are usually accompanied by Marines or someone else who provides security. But the combat-trained SERT team provides its own security.
Its 10 members are specially selected for their skills. There is a plumbing specialist, an electrician, a navigator and so on. Each Seabee battalion has a SERT team.
Petty Officer 1st Class Daryl Houk of Clinton, Mo., is the mechanic.
He makes sure there is food and water in the rigs; the communications gear and weapons are up; and that everyone is packed and ready for the mission at hand.
“The vehicles must be fueled up and mechanically sound and ready to go the distance we have to travel,” Houk said. “Pre- checks are a must for us. On the road we have no parts support, we have nobody else who can help us.
“I need to know how to fix that Humvee with what we have.”
As some of the SERT members guarded the perimeter, others at the site discussed what was needed — a stronger roof and walls, bunkers, a graded parking area, toilets.
Once they knew what they needed, the SERT team fired up the six Humvees and rumbled back to Camp Fallujah.
They make trips by land, air or sea, sometimes taking roads less traveled and sleeping under the stars. This trip, however, took just two hours.
The work at the site could take a week to finish or several months, depending on how it is prioritized. But for now the SERT team’s job was over, and this one had gone off without a hitch.