116th leaves its mark in Iraq

Published February 22, 2005 1:01 am

No casualties: The Utah National Guard unit completed multiple construction tasks
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Before Utah's 116th Engineer Company flew to Iraq last winter for a long deployment, two Navajo medicine men traveled to their staging area at Fort Carson, Colo., to pray for the safe return of all 159 soldiers. The Utah National Guard members came home last week without suffering a single casualty.

And during that year, the company completed more than 100 heavy engineering and road construction projects in the Iraqi cities of Mosul, Tikrit, Balad, Baghdad, Fallujah and An Nasiriyah. In e-mails and interviews, members told of their experiences - not just the projects, but the fun and jokes.

The main body drove from Kuwait to Camp Anaconda in southern Iraq inside 20-ton dump trucks, hardened with steel they had gathered from scrap heaps left behind by departing soldiers. The Utah engineers also fashioned gun mounts atop five of the 12 giant dump trucks, which served as their main source of protection.

"The trucks were a formidable sight," said Lt. Randy Miller. "Nobody messed with us when we convoyed into Iraq."

At Camp Anaconda near An Nasiriyah, they striped off the steel from their trucks to harden Humvees left by soldiers they had replaced. There, the heavy-equipment operators hauled asphalt, gravel and fill material to build an ammunition supply point and a yard where equipment was handed out - without interrupting logistical operations at the camp.

The soldiers also filled in a dozen bunkers hastily built by the Iraqis or U.S. paratroopers. The makeshift fighting positions were so unstable that they would likely collapse, swallowing anyone who walked on them.

At night from their barracks, the soldiers could see palm trees lining the banks of the Tigris River in the distance. The scene outside the wire perimeter fence looked green, lush and inviting, said Miller in an e-mail in February 2003. Inside we had a "nice population of colorful little birds."

"The children and parents working the farm fields outside the wire are usually pretty friendly and often are the first to offer a friendly wave," he wrote. "I saw a boy this morning running along the fence to get a good look at our [road] smooth roller. I guess tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles have grown routine, and he was curious about what kind of gizmo that was rolling down the road."

In April, the company sent two platoons to the Tikrit region and a third to Mosul where the engineers moved material for constructing deep earthen works to store enemy ordinance that would be destroyed.

At Camp Buckmaster in Tikrit, the engineers built 210 large pits to store ammunition. The storage cells were 80-foot-by-80-foot deep, surrounded on three sides by 9-foot berms. The fourth side was open, allowing trucks to deliver the contraband.

"The camp couldn't blow up all the ammunition they captured," said Sgt. 1st Class Jason Turville, of West Valley City, "and they were blowing up 100,000 pounds of ammunition every day."

The soldiers worked six days a week and a half shift on Sundays. They labored through the summer, working from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m., to escape temperatures so intense that their tools could get as hot as 190 degrees.

"The guys who ran the camp were nervous about us going out at night," said Turville. "But we posted our own security guards who had night vision goggles. We were lucky, only one soldier was evacuated from heat exhaustion and nobody got hurt."

On the Fourth of July, American contractors blew up a large batch of white phosphorus artillery rounds, lighting up the sky with golden, trailing sparklers. The display was carefully timed to comply with Army regulations - during the day, just after sunset at about 8 p.m.

For their part, the Utah engineers staged a party around a pond they had built to store water needed for construction projects. While they played volleyball and flag football, their comrades hit them with water balloons.

"Everyone got wet," said Turville. "The culmination of the day was a tug of war over the pond."

By fall, the company was ordered back to Tallil Base near An Nasiriyah. Nearby was Ur, the legendary birthplace of the biblical patriarch Abraham and perhaps the earliest-built city in the world. But many of the soldiers had no time for sight-seeing. In sweltering heat, they hauled material to build a road to what would become a refueling area just off the main supply route that winds from Kuwait in the south to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.

"We were sent out to the middle of nowhere," said Spc. Bruce Bitsinnie of Mexican Hat. "There was nothing there."

The deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had drained swamp lands in the area, killing off most vegetation, which in turn, had forced villagers to move elsewhere.

"There seemed to be no military purpose to drain off all the water," said Miller. "It looked like a wanton act of vengeance."

The Utah soldiers hauled 450,000 tons of material in the flood areas, raising the road to the refueling point by three to four feet. They also installed conduit for large fuel lines and cleared a large oval where fuel pumps will be installed.

"It was the largest project completed by a single company," said 1st Sgt. Craig Haskell of Payson. "The refueling point will be used by all convoys coming into and out of Iraq."

Other soldiers in the Utah company hauled asphalt and guarded Iraqi contractors working to pave the pot-marked main supply route, also called Highway 1. Soldiers in the 116th used trucks mounted with an MK-19, a grenade launcher or a 50-caliber machine gun to guard the engineers.

In December, they were back in Kuwait, painstakingly washing off their heavy equipment caked with dirt and their personal equipment to pass strict customs regulations geared to stop the transfer of harmful bacteria commonly found in the soil.

"I'd stack this company against any in the Army," said Haskell. "We made an impact."


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