FORT CHAFFEE, Ark. - River Assault almost didn't happen.
The unusually high river levels of the Arkansas River left behind residue along the four "slips" used to unload bridge bays and bridge erection boats into the water. Those areas were covered in 2 to 4 inches of sentiment from the river.
But, the 712th Engineer Company (Horizontal) had a mission to complete, and they made it happen.
Operation River Assault is a two-week combat training exercise with a culminating event of an Improved Ribbon Bridge assembled to cross the Arkansas River. Four different Multi-Role Bridging Companies work together to execute this highlight event.
But with an exercise heavily focused on water activities, who would have believed horizontal engineers would pave the way.
"We came down here with our heavy equipment: with our dozers, graders and scoop-loaders," said Staff Sgt. William Adkins, heavy equipment operating and manager of the job sites. "We cleaned all the silt off to the side, so we could find the hard surface and the bridgers could build their bridges here and get access to the river without getting stuck."
When the advance party checked the area before the exercise, the water was so high the company wasn't sure they would even be able to bring their heavy equipment out to the river.
"It was a little intimidating because it was water, then mud. The water was about 6 to 7 feet above where it is now so 100 meters back it was all flooded and we couldn't get back there for two days," said 2nd Lt. Bartley Schwegler, platoon leader and construction site officer-in-charge. "The water went down really quickly, like 2 feet a day to the point where it was just mud. After that we just pushed it out."
Schwegler makes it sound easy, but the Soldiers had some difficulties.
"Getting closer and closer to the water, it's a little bit difficult, trying to find the slip that was already there because the water had risen so much, taking off a bunch of feet of mud off the top of that and just scraping it down," said Spc. Jaelen Brown, heavy equipment operator. "It was a bit difficult; I got the grader stuck a couple times, but I got out of it ... nice training though getting real acquainted and better at the grader than I was before."
Moving silt and debris wasn't the full extent of the work to be done.
"At slip four, there was a tree growing in it. It had gotten shifted because of the water, so it was in the middle of it," said Schwegler, an Aiken, South Carolina, native. "That was really cool to watch get moved. That got done in a day, which is crazy because that was supposed to be the worse one. They got on it and they fixed it; blew my forecasting out of the water. That was great."
The company completed the slips ahead of schedule and their Soldiers became more knowledgeable.
"The biggest learning experience was just learning how to deal with all the mud and just watching everything happen: the before-and-after picture in your mind," said Brown, a Salisbury, North Carolina, native. "Seeing things going from real muddy to how we cut out all the mud to the next step, to the next, to the final product of just grating it all out and being able to just drive on it, seeing the (M19977 AC Common Bridge Transporter) drivers drive on it, and them having no problem."
Brown took more than the before-and-after picture with him.
"I got a little pride in me today when I was out there, and I saw on slip four how they couldn't drive on it to now there is a smooth transaction, smooth turnaround point," said Brown.
Adkins knows from experience this mission has real-world application.
"It keeps us training; it keeps us with good training because being overseas, there was a lot of times when I was overseas that we had to do joint operations with bridge builders to go over the Euphrates River," said Adkins. "I thought it was a good impact on (the Soldiers) to let them see how it can affect them in the future, either deployed or stateside."
In addition to the slips, the 712th Eng. Company also improved the transportation route for the exercise.
"The roads here, they were all washed out, hadn't really been maintained. It's actually owned by the county, not Fort Chaffee, so they're letting us fix their roads," said Schwegler. "In the north part, toward the river, there are potholes the size of two cars and 2 feet deep in the middle. We've gotten a lot of those fixed, too. We should have the whole 5 kilometers of road done by the time we leave on (Aug.) 4. It's pretty cool to watch these guys go out and get the work done."
The company has completed many improvements for the exercise and it has not gone unnoticed.
"Especially with this (military occupational specialty), you really don't get that much appreciation. It's really just pushing dirt, building roads. It's important, but it's not glamorous," said Schwegler. "It's great to come here and have them fix the boat slips, create roads that are passable and serviceable for the operation and then hear them actually get the accolades from battalion and brigade. They're like, 'Yeah! Good for you! You're the reason this is going to happen!' So that was really cool and I'm glad I got to be in charge of that. That's rare praise, I think."
"It makes everybody in the company feel real good about our mission and that we're able to complete what we need to complete for everything else to work the way it needs to work," added Adkins, a Rock Hill, South Carolina, resident. "We're really excited that we're actually appreciated by a battalion in coming here and can do our job and they respect that and appreciate it. They've done a great job of telling us and showing us that they appreciate it."
The battalion and brigade weren't the only ones who showed they valued the work the 712th completed.
"The guys who are doing the bridging, they've done a great job of showing their appreciation toward us," said Adkins. "They've gotten some Soldiers on some boat rides and it keeps morale up. It helps them see what they're doing impacts everybody else."
Schwegler hopes the Soldiers take that gratefulness to heart.
"I know a lot of them often feel pushed into a corner just because of their MOS and their job. 'Oh, we push dirt. That's not cool. We're not jumping out of airplanes.' But, hopefully they're really going to come away with an appreciation for how important their job can be," he said. "When they need mobility enhancement capabilities, we're the guys they call, and without us really nothing can happen a lot of the time, especially with a bridging operation."
Horizontal engineers provide an asset to other companies so it is important to train together. In addition to horizontal and bridge companies, River Assault brings together Sapper, mobility, route clearance companies as well as aviation and divers.
"The biggest thing I think the Soldiers can take away from here is the joint operations going on so they see how their job plays a part in the Army," said Adkins. "This is one of the best ways to see that because rivers are all over the world. We always have to cross some body of water to get somewhere, so they see how construction equipment ties into all that, and how we support the Army to continue moving forward. That's the biggest thing I'd like them to get from it."
The 712th Eng. Company can leave Fort Chaffee knowing they made an impact and ensured the bridge companies could continue moving forward.