To Marines, bridge is like 'big Lego set'
AS SINDIYAH, Iraq — For a few Marines, the weapons of choice are sledgehammers, wrenches and elbow grease — lots of elbow grease.
They are the Marines of Bridge Company A, part of the 8th Engineer Support Battalion, and their singular status in the Corps makes up for a lot of sore muscles and aching backs.
“That is the best part about it,” said Lance Cpl. Aaron Allen. “We are the only active-duty bridge company in the Marine Corps. That is a lot of motivation.”
The Corps has two bridge companies in the reserves. They’ve been to Iraq and served six-month tours. Combat Marines typically spend seven months in Iraq. Bridge Company A came for 12 months.
They have built bridges, or taken them out, across Iraq for more than 10 months, about 25 or 30 of them, sometimes traveling hours from their home at Logistics Support Area Anaconda, 40 miles north of Baghdad.
When they do that, they work around-the-clock in 12-hour shifts until the job is complete.
The bridge they are building now on the Tigris River, near the village of As Sindiyah, is not far from Anaconda, so they can spend their nights on base.
This is their toughest bridge to date: a Mabey-Johnson bridge put together in sections and then assembled on the river. It’s the first floating bridge the company has built in Iraq.
“It’s like a big Lego set to us,” said Staff Sgt. Marcellus Pickering.
For more than a year, a simple assault bridge has shouldered the heavy traffic load.
“This bridge is not meant for what it’s doing,” Pickering said, motioning toward the assault bridge that heaved and rolled each time a truck crossed.
The current bridge can support only one vehicle at a time, so convoys must stop on both sides of the river to cross, creating stationary targets.
When the Marines finish the new 340-meter bridge, convoys will be able to cross without stopping. They began work on it in November, and its expected completion date has not been announced due to security reasons.
While not exactly complaining, the bridge-building Marines don’t cheer every time they have to create something to cross a river.
“I don’t like building bridges,” said Cpl. Landon Genard, who is not alone in his sentiments.
No one seemed overjoyed by fastening 700-pound galvanized steel sections together with a 1,000-pound transom beam, driving in metal pins the size of a forearm with sledgehammers and twisting giant nuts and bolts to hold everything together.
“That galvanized steel is frickin’ heavy,” said Lance Cpl. Eric Laird, who has been with the company since he enlisted two years ago.
When a crane brought a section of the bridge to the Marines, they manhandled it into place.
“It’s like a big puzzle you’ve got to put together,” said Cpl. Philip Maxfield. “Nothing goes together perfectly. You’ve got to wiggle it.”
Once it had been wiggled into place, the pounding started. Sledgehammers slammed into steel, then again, until the pin slipped into place.
The best job in the company might be piloting one of the bridge erection boats, or BEBs. Each has two 250-horsepower engines that operate independently, allowing it to maneuver on the water much like a tracked vehicle does on land.
“This is the only boat that can rotate on its own axis,” said Lance Cpl. Brian Harvey. “You can sit in one spot and spin.”
The boats push the floating sections into place so they can be fastened together. When one completed section broke away from a mooring recently, the boat’s pilots raced to their boats like firemen responding to a call. They roared into the river and caught up with the fugitive piece of bridge, gently shoving it back to shore.
The bridge at As Sindiyah is a multi-service effort. Air Force engineers designed the abutments and the roadway leading to the bridge on each side. Soldiers from the 502nd Engineer Battalion have provided security and often operated the crane that moves the heavy bridge pieces into place.
The Marines said they enjoy seeing the finished product, but don’t revel in that sense of accomplishment too long.
“We all take a bridge picture and move on,” said Pickering. “That’s about it.”
One reason the Marines don’t spend too much time enjoying their handiwork is because they don’t know how long the bridge may be around.
Allen recalled one time returning to Anaconda after building a bridge south of Baghdad.
“When we came back, we were all beat. They gave us a day off,” Allen said. “When we woke up, they told us [the bridge] was blown up.”
Other times, the Marines know they made a difference.
Laird recalled a bridge on Main Supply Route Tampa. Until that bridge was built, no supplies could get to the bases in northern Iraq by truck.
“We made it happen,” he said.