'Advise and Assist' brigade helps bridge project
October 15, 2009
SAQLAWIYA, Iraq (Oct. 14, 2009) -- On a floating bridge beside the stump of a modern concrete highway span under construction here, two middle-aged men talk through an interpreter about the job before them.
One is Najee Hamed, shift supervisor for the Iraqi police who are manning traffic control points and providing security for the bridge and new construction. A large, heavyset man, Hamed is a former first sergeant of an Iraq army artillery battery who was wounded by rocket fire in the Iraq-Iran War.
The other is U.S. Army 1st Sgt. Scott Thomas, a paratrooper on his fifth deployment, whose family's military service dates back to the U.S. Revolution. Thomas, with the 82nd Airborne Division's 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, is providing security for an Army dive team that is removing debris from a destroyed bridge so that Iraqi contractors may finish a new bridge project.
The 504th was the first infantry regiment in the Army to be designated airborne; now it is part of the newest tool in the Army's arsenal developed for this kind of mission: the advise-and-assist brigade.
"[Local residents] are glad the Americans are here, because the Iraqi contractors were getting slowed by the old pontoons in the river," Hamed said. "Our concern is to minimize the time this bridge is closed to the public while divers are in the water."
A man pushing a bicycle nods in agreement. He works in construction, where time is money, and he has been waiting 30 minutes to cross the Euphrates.
Another man stops to voice his opinion. His name is Saaed Moshref, and he is a math teacher. He has lived in the area 30 of his 40 years, and he crosses the bridge to visit friends. "I want the bridge done tomorrow," he said, smiling. "But at least it's getting done, and at least it is safe to be here."
Local people look forward to the additional food and services that will become available when the project is complete, he said. "Above everything, they are most concerned with their economic survival."
The security situation at the bridge site is very good compared to years past, he noted.
"Two years ago, we could not cross the bridge without getting shot at," Hamed said.
Divers from the 86th Engineer Dive Team have found five pontoons from an old float bridge blown up by an improvised explosive device in 2004. At least two of the pontoons lie out of the way. A third is dragged downriver by the riverside bulldozers and tank wrecker provided by engineers of the 50th Multi-Role Bridge Company out of Joint Base Balad. The dive team expects the reclamation to take a few weeks.
With a five-knot current, depths up to 40 feet and ink-like visibility, the surface-supply diving is done completely by feel. Mapping the river bottom is done by trigonometry. Evenly spaced knots in the diver's tether line indicate the length of the hypotenuse. The depth gauge gives the second leg of the right triangle, which allows the third leg to be calculated.
"The conditions are right on the edge of what is possible," said 1st Lt. Joe Lunn, commander of the dive team.
The divers work two at a time. The work is cold, slow and unnerving, said Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Hawkey, a father of two who has dived for the Fort Eustis, Va.,-based company for eight years. Because of the intensity, a two-hour dive seems like 10 minutes, he said.
The divers prefer to dive for no more than two hours at a time. Because of the amount of time involved in preparing to go into the water, they are only able to conduct two dives per day. At the deepest, swiftest point in the channel, it takes a diver 30 minutes to traverse seven feet. It is time the divers cannot afford.
Lunn asks the paratroopers to shift security to the far bank so the divers can avoid the middle, and the paratroopers swing into motion. As Iraqi police check the flow of traffic, provincial security forces stand by with a gun truck, and a patrol of paratroopers sweeps the far shore and sets up observation points.
Sgt. 1st Class David Schimant, a platoon sergeant with the 50th MRBC, is glad to have the support of such a highly regarded unit. On some projects, his bridge builders provide their own security. The presence of the 82nd paratroopers lets them concentrate on supporting the dive team with their boats, dozers and bridging expertise.
As with U.S. forces throughout Iraq, the 50th MRBC is teaching Iraqis to do for themselves for when the Americans are gone. In September, the 50th trained up an Iraqi bridging company on a joint project in the Taji area spanning the Tigris. They named it Partnership Bridge.
On the seventh day of Operation Neptune, Iraqi police reported that a prominent religious leader in nearby Saqlawiya had been assassinated by a magnetic bomb attached to his vehicle, and the day following, another bomb targeted his mourners. The police and provincial security forces handled both attacks on innocent civilians, although U.S. forces were prepared to provide assistance.
Since his last deployment, Thomas' paratroopers have noticed a marked improvement in the professionalism of Iraqi security forces.
"Last time, they knew if something happened and they did nothing, we would come solve the problem," said Sgt. 1st Class Jose Guzman, a platoon sergeant over-watching the bridge from a guard house with two policemen bearing assault rifles. "Sometimes, they would even leave their posts or fall asleep. Not now."
Just up the road, a platoon from Thomas' company has been training with the 8th Iraqi Brigade, 3rd Iraqi Division. At the request of the Iraqi sergeant major, paratroopers are helping Iraqis develop their noncommissioned officer corps through classes and teaching materials on tactical and leadership skills, Thomas said.
"We are calling it 'Strike Training,'" he said. It includes a full spectrum of Soldier skills and strives to lay out standards for field techniques, hygiene, physical fitness and even rudimentary expectations, such as being on time. Currently, Iraqi officers must handle those sorts of tasks, handled in U.S. forces by noncommissioned officers such as Thomas and Guzman.
Like Hamed, Muhammed Jabber Hawal joined the police to protect his family and neighbors. "It's nice to save people," said Hawal, who has been a policeman since the U.S.-led invasion. Also like Hamed, he agrees that finishing the bridge is important to the town's economic development, and ultimately, its long-term stability.
"If you want to go to Ramadi or Fallujah, this is the best way," Hawal said, waving a hand at the soon-to-be finished span. At 29, he has a friend who lost a leg in the violence of years past, and another who lost a hand. Still, he is unafraid to stand sentry at the new bridge with the Americans.
"This is my home," he said.
(From a 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, news release.)