By Sgt. Chad D. Nelson, 135th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, 3rd Infantry Division PAO
CONTINGENCY OPERATING SITE MAREZ, Iraq - On a humid, overcast spring day in Iraq, six trucks driven by the combat engineers of 3rd Platoon, 573rd Clearance Company, 1st Engineer Battalion, 130th Engineer Brigade, roll down a main supply route, scanning the sides of the road for their next mission. Just a few years ago, improvised explosive devices riddled roads like these, threatening the safety of U.S. servicemembers and Iraqi civilians.
While still dangerous, these roads are now relatively safer. This is due, in part, to the efforts of previously deployed engineer brigades denying access to culverts - tubes that run underneath roads, which allow water to flow. Violent extremists used these culverts in the past to hide IEDs, resulting in the deaths of servicemembers and civilians. U.S. Army engineers effectively denied access to these culverts, but they did so hastily in order to quell the threat as quickly as possible. In their haste to protect fellow servicemembers and innocent civilians, the engineers often installed denial systems that stopped the water flow through the culvert. This was the case with 3rd platoon's most recent mission. A large Hesco barrier filled with earth - surrounded by concertina wire and barbed wire - completely blocked the culvert, reducing the water flow to a mere trickle.
"The Hesco was very effective, but it was hasty," said 1st Lt. Matthew O'Shea, platoon leader, 3rd Plt., 1st Eng. Bn., 130th Eng. Bde. "It definitely worked but ... it's causing flooding."
To improve water flow and decrease flooding in the area, the engineers brought an arsenal of tools to combat this project. A high mobility engineer excavator first ripped the Hesco barrier to pieces and pushed the mountains of dirt away from the culvert. Once exposed, the culvert presented a new challenge: earth and tar plugged the hole.
The engineers used everything they had to clear the dirt and tar. The sound of shovels, jackhammers and a cement saw pierced the humid air as cars raced by on the nearby highway. Large globs of oily, putrid tar mixed with mud and dirt came out in awkward clumps as the engineers took turns on the excavation project. Sweaty, exhausted and covered in tar and mud, the Soldiers took turns digging, encouraging their comrades.
"We need to clear this out to allow free water flow of the culvert," said 1st Lt. O'Shea. A small streambed wandered away from the culvert and traveled off into the distance, leading to possible farmlands. "People can start to use the drainage for irrigation."
While the threat of IED placement is lower than in the past, the threat still exists and the engineers must deny access to the concrete tubes that run underneath the road while still allowing water flow. They accomplish this one of two ways: constructing and installing a grate or placing a new, specifically designed "Lapeer kit."
The hope for the mission was to use the new Lapeer kits. The kit is pre-fabricated and completely covers the culvert. Holes are large enough to allow water to flow, but small enough to deny access to the tube. Bright purple in color, the kit looks like it would belong in a carnival or children's museum instead of on the side of an Iraqi road protecting Soldiers and Iraqi civilians from IED blasts. While the kits and grates are equally effective at denying access to culverts, the kits are far more efficient to install, according to 1st Lt. O'Shea.
After hours of digging, pounding and sawing their way through the tar and muck, the engineers discovered the tube was too small to support the Lapeer kit. The engineers have the capability to weld on site. A small trailer, pulled by their Mine-Resistant, Ambush Protected vehicle, acts as a portable welding station and the tractor-trailer, which hauls the HMEE Excavator, holds the metal needed for the job. Still hoping to capitalize on the efficiency of the Lapeer kit, the engineers tried to widen the tube further so that the kit could fit. After attempting this for more than an hour, the platoon leader decided to take measurements of the culvert and fabricate the grate at the engineer's motor pool on Contingency Operating Base Speicher.
"Pre-fabricating means better quality and stronger welds," said 1st Lt. O'Shea. Normally, the engineers recon the site and take measurements so they can pre-fabricate before going to the site. This was impossible for this site, as the Hesco barrier denied all access - even to the engineers' measuring tapes.
After a hasty denial system consisting of a huge pile of dirt was in place, the engineers headed home to construct the grate, and an already long day turned even longer. It took hours to construct, but the resulting grate was very effective: a large square of iron covered horizontally by iron rebar. The bars are less than six inches apart, denying access to the culvert but allowing large amounts of water to flow through uninterrupted.
Local Iraqis often come by to thank the engineers for their work after a project like this, but none were present on this day. However, the Soldiers needed no thanks. The knowledge of a job well done was more than enough for these Soldiers. They installed grates on both sides of the road in less than four hours, which is quicker than expected, according to Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Preski, 3rd Platoon sergeant, 573rd Clearance Co., 1st Eng. Bn., 130th Eng. Bde.
While this project may seem finished, the engineers will return to this site and other culverts they have denied to make sure no one tampers with them. They will also be refitting and improving additional culvert denial systems that previous engineers have hastily emplaced - no less than 20 projects. During the height of the war in Iraq, engineers placed countless hasty denial systems. Now, as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw from Iraq, they take special care to leave things right, to leave things as they found them. In this case, they are leaving things improved - offering an opportunity for irrigation while still protecting citizens from danger.