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Sgt. Adam Lauritzen (center) and Sgt. Mauricio Guevara (right) combat engineers with Marine Wing Support Squadron 171 at Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station, Japan, receive the Bronze Star Medal with combat distinguishing device for their service during Operation Iraqi Freedom, from Col. Stephen Fenstermacher, commander of Marine Wing Support Group 17, during a ceremony June 9.

Sgt. Adam Lauritzen (center) and Sgt. Mauricio Guevara (right) combat engineers with Marine Wing Support Squadron 171 at Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station, Japan, receive the Bronze Star Medal with combat distinguishing device for their service during Operation Iraqi Freedom, from Col. Stephen Fenstermacher, commander of Marine Wing Support Group 17, during a ceremony June 9. (Courtesy of the United States Marine Corps)

On a pivotal night in April of 2003, two Marine combat engineers battled two different obstacles a few miles apart that proved their mettle and allowed the units they accompanied to cross into Baghdad and set up a foothold.

Both Marines have since come to Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station in Japan, where they share wartime experiences with a new crop of combat engineers.

In June, both received one of the military’s highest medals for valor: the Bronze Star with combat distinguishing device.

Both showed courage, leadership and poise under pressure, said Gunnery Sgt. Scott Cooper, their current company first sergeant, who served in the same battalion in Iraq.

Marines are tested most “when you’re being shot at and mortars are coming in,” he said “They didn’t hesitate when it was time to get it done.”

The entire division was following on its way into Baghdad by doing what they did, he added, the two ensured that those forces made it through.

The Marines, Sgt. Mauricio Guevara and Sgt. Adam Lauritzen, both 23, now work for Marine Wing Support Squadron 171. They say their medals are a reflection of the squads they led and play down the accomplishment.

“I owe it all to my Marines,” Lauritzen said. “What’s one guy? One guy is a target.”

But on April 6, 2003, accepting that risk proved their valor.

Building bridges

Sgt. Guevara and the company he was attached to were the first to reach the bridge, the last barrier to Baghdad. The troops had been battling toward this point for two weeks.

Iraqis had blown apart a large portion of the bridge, so combat engineers were called forward to fix it.

“We found scaffolding in the town the night before,” he said. Guevara made a plan to dissemble the scaffolding, carry it to the bridge and patch the hole so the companies could cross. All under the eye of the enemy on the other side.

“We thought it would take 10 minutes. It took two.”

A combat engineer’s job is to clear obstacles, whether the obstacle is something like a minefield or a gaping hole in a bridge.

When necessary, they grab rifles and join infantrymen or provide their own security. They’re both technical and tactical.

“They push up in front of the combat forces,” Cooper said. “They have a lot of responsibility as sergeant engineers.”

For Guevara, the solution to his obstacle was a quick patch.

The first part of the mission required Guevara and his men to inspect the bridge. With a small security escort, four engineers raced to the bridge under cover of darkness with a quarter of the bridge assigned to each. Guevara had the first section on the far side. He ran over as a flare was shot to provide two minutes of illumination — a flare that also would expose them to enemy fire.

He made it back and later learned that the other side of the bridge was technically Baghdad. He had been one of the first Americans to enter the city.

The engineers and a security escort set out to fix the bridge. On the way they took fire and the tracked vehicle accompanying them was hit, killing two and injuring several others. Guevara led corpsmen to the vehicle and aided the injured and tagged the dead. They still had a bridge to repair.

“Everybody was still a little shaky,” Guevara said. “But that’s what we train for.”

Guevara said being fired on wasn’t so bad. It had happened all the way up to that point.

“It’s not like the first time. The first time there’s some hesitation. After that it’s just reaction.”

The most difficult part of the mission wasn’t the barrage of fire. It was the uncertainly, not knowing if, when the incoming firing stops, it means the enemy was stopped or is just waiting for him to run on to the bridge.

“You know for sure there’s enemy on the other side,” he said. “You’re just hoping” they’re incapacitated.

A field of mines

The same day Guevara reached the bridge, Sgt. Lauritzen was a few miles away facing a different damaged bridge with a tank battalion he was attached to. The bridge was protected on either side by minefields.

Lauritzen set off the mine-clearing line charge, or MCLC, a rocket that shoots out a line of charges to detonate a path through the field.

“When an MCLC goes off it doesn’t always get all the mines out of the way,” he said.

Lauritzen followed and carefully denoted the remaining mines with C-4 explosive to clear the way. While he worked, he felt the vibrations of fire.

“I thought it was our tanks firing the other way,” he said. He didn’t know it was enemy machine-gun fire coming at him.

At the bridge, he decided on a different type of patch. They used an armored-vehicle-launched bridge that pops open to cover the hole. The engineers patched the bridge and the forces began crossing.

On the other side, Lauritzen saw the bridge was packed with TNT. They found a dead Iraqi man nearby still clutching a detonator.

Past the bridge, the second minefield stopped the advance. Still under heavy fire, they repeated the clearing process. But there wasn’t enough time to carefully and slowly detonate remaining mines.

Lauritzen raced out and began moving the remaining mines by hand. The first one was on fire.

He delicately moved about eight mines to the side to clear the path. Each could have cost him his life.

“We needed to get out there. We were pretty exposed,” he said. “At the time you just do the job, you don’t really think about it. I violated almost all the SOPs (standard operating procedures) we’ve got.”

Becoming a hero

Both Marines say they’re proud to receive their medal, but feel it should have gone to their entire squads. Guevara turned down a Navy Achievement Medal because his entire squad wouldn’t receive one.

“The whole thing was a squad effort,” he said.

Lauritzen agreed. “There’s things happening every day that go unnoticed” in Iraq.

Both sergeants are using their combat experience and the respect earned from their medals to influence a new generation of combat engineers.

“They share their experience with the inexperienced,” Cooper said. “They put a sense of reality into it. Everybody listens to them now because of their experience.”

The experience of real combat can’t be replicated. Few young Marines have anything to compare it to.

“We had to rely on movies” to see what war looks like, Guevara said.

When young Marines complain about having to learn techniques they may not use, or training in extremely austere conditions, the veteran sergeants can tell them why it is necessary.

“You definitely have to make training tough and realistic,” Guevara said. “It was always explained to me but I never really realized it.”

He tries now to inspire his Marines and to serve as an example. He also hopes to become an officer and a recruiter some day.

Lauritzen said Marines always ask if he’s killed anyone and want to know more about combat.

“They always want to hear the stories,” he said. “Combat is at the same time the most confusing and the most simple part of war. You just have to focus.”

He said the medal reminds him less of any individual action than of the cohesion his squad developed in war.

“It’s kind of like God saying ‘you’re never going to forget now.’”

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