FORT MCCOY, Wis. - “It was a convoy training lane where the Soldiers react to direct and indirect fire, taking casualties and a vehicle breaks down along with civilian contact,” said U.S. Army Reserve Maj. Kristin Caulfield, Observer Coach/Trainer Team Lead, 2-361st Training Support Battalion, Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
The training lanes were designed to enhance readiness through more realistic scenarios in combat. The sights and sounds of the training lanes, however, took on added meaning to Caulfield and created some reflection of past combat engagements for her and what this training really meant for participating Soldiers.
“This lane made me think about my time in Iraq,” said Caulfield, a civilian human resources specialist who served 13 months in Iraq with an Army Reserve engineer company.
April 7th, 2003 was the day she said that she will never forget. On that day her Army Reserve unit made military history while building a bridge.
“We were part of the initial invasion of Iraq. We were attached to the Marine Corps. We built the bridge going into Baghdad across the Diyala River,” explained Caulfield. “It was the first bridge built under enemy fire since World War II. It was a float bridge.”
The aluminum float ribbon bridge came in five separate pieces on the back of a truck and was unloaded into the river. It could be assembled in less than an hour.
At the time, Caulfield was a young specialist serving as a fueler with the 459th Engineer Company (Multi-Role Bridge Company), based in Bridgeport, West Virginia.
“We were there to provide support if they needed fuel,” said Caulfield. “It was absolute chaos. The teams out there were highly trained and worked like a well-oiled machine.”
But what’s a Soldier who worked as a fueler doing on bridge building mission?
Before going on the deployment, Caulfield reclassed to earn the 12-Charlie Bridge Builder Military Occupational Specialty at Camp Grafton, North Dakota.
“There were 200-unit members. Eight of us were females. At that time, the bridge builder MOS was occasionally closed to female Soldiers,” Caulfield said.
That’s why she was there that day. Getting the bridge in place was a baptism by fire. The mission was of the utmost importance and the lead element of the First Marine Expeditionary Force needed the bridge to expand its dismounted infantry bridgehead with tanks before entering the city of Baghdad.
“We were fired on constantly by insurgents until we got the Marines across the bridge. After we crossed (the bridge) the firing pretty much ceased. It was mostly small arms fire. We lost two Marines on that day,” said Caulfield.
Marine Lance Cpl. Andrew Julian Aviles and Cpl. Jesus Martin Antonio Medellin were killed when an enemy artillery round hit their vehicle.
“I kept a journal from the day I arrived in Iraq up until that day,” said Caulfield. “On that day, I wrote in my journal ‘I think I saw hell today.’”
She never made another entry in her journal again.
The mission is frozen in time in a painting that sits in the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. today. West Virginia public broadcasting also did a series about the unit titled “Bridgeport to Baghdad”.
And Caulfield wears a unique combat patch on her right arm. It’s a Marine Corps combat patch with the word Guadalcanal emblazoned on the number one.
Each year, on April 7th, Caulfield and the Soldiers she served with, on that day, get together to share a cabin and remember the mission that happened a time long ago.
“There’s laughter, tears and relaxation,” explained Caulfield.
It was just a single mission during the war in Iraq but one that brought together a life-long bond between brothers and sisters-in-arms. Now leading and guiding Soldiers in how to build a ready force, Caulfield said the best part of lanes training was experiencing the chaos of battle.
“Regardless of their mission, if chaos erupts the Soldiers will be better equipped to maintain a level head,” Caulfield said.