By Sgt. Thomas L. Day, 40th Public Affairs DetachmentNovember 20, 2006
SOUTHWEST ASIA (Army News Service, Nov. 20, 2006) - From the skies, the Army calls on the Airborne; on the ground, they call on the Infantry. But when the Army needs something done underwater - in the Persian Gulf or a small lake in Iraq - the divers of the 544th Engineer Team are ready to move.
"We're deployed here as a theater asset," said Capt. Thomas Darrow, commander of the 544th detachment currently in Kuwait. "We're deployed here because we can go all over the place." And so they have.
Deployed to Kuwait since December of 2005, Darrow's divers have reached several areas in Third Army/U.S. Army Central's area of responsibility to include: Kuwait, Iraq, Qatar, even, Oman and Kenya. They have been called on to do security sweeps on U.S. Navy vessels and recover troops killed in action.
Home base has been a seaport in Kuwait, but for nearly a year, the 544th Engineers have been constantly on the move. The 544th detachment has been tasked 35 times with what their commander equates to "gate-guard duty" - sweeping ships coming into the Kuwait City port for explosives. It's an insurance policy that has been mandated since the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen.
"We've never found anything, but it's a safety precaution, it's a show of force," said Darrow. The divers have also done similar underwater security sweeps at ports in Qatar and east Africa.
It is in Iraq, however, that the divers are told to leave their gate-guard duty for missions that are anything but routine. In 2006, a Marine troop carrier flipped after attempting to traverse a flooded street. "They thought it was four inches when it was 25 feet of water," said Darrow.
The water receded and they found all but two of the nine bodies. The water current fed into the Euphrates River, where it was suspected the bodies had drifted. For eight days, the dive company searched the 20 kilometers of the river. On Easter Day, the search was over. A group of Iraqis had found the bodies more than 70 kilometers away from the crash site. The next month, the divers were back in the Iraqi town of Al Taquaddum, west of Baghdad, after a Marine Cobra helicopter crashed into a nearby lake.
"There was an area where there were oil spots on the surface," Staff Sgt. Joshua West recalled. He correctly aimed his efforts toward the oil spots. When they found the helicopter, the Cobra was on its back with its nose planted in the mud.
This fall, the divers were called into Iraq again, once more ordered to find Marines lost in an attack. The Marines were hit by a roadside bomb on Oct. 6 on a bridge outside of Fallujah. Four of the five passengers were confirmed dead; the fifth was unaccounted for.
"At the time of the incident, the dam was open," Staff Sgt. Kurt Langely recounted.
The immediate and accurate assessment was that the fifth body had been vacuumed into the canal and floated upstream. The body was found two days later by the team a kilometer from the site. In an article Darrow wrote for Engineer magazine (a U.S. Army engineer trade publication), he called the recovery assignments "one of the more unfortunate, but honorable, missions an Army diver can accomplish."
Darrow and Mendoza's Soldiers are scheduled to return home to Fort Eustis, Va., in December. They will be replaced by another of the five detachments of the 544th Engineer Team.