The third Iraq deployment for Fort Lewis’ 14th Engineer Battalion has a different feel: The 750 soldiers are spending less time searching for roadside bombs and have more opportunities to train Iraqis and rebuild roads.
And that means more opportunity to build goodwill, the battalion commander said.
"In the summer of 2003, most Iraqis waved or smiled when you passed them on patrol," Lt. Col. Pete Helmlinger said by phone. "When I returned in 2006, I saw mostly long faces and glares. I now see waving and smiling again, with an occasional hang-loose wave, and far fewer glares."
Most of the soldiers spend their days rebuilding roads near Tallil, in southeastern Iraq. But a third of the unit, part of the 555th Engineer Brigade, spends its days on patrol, looking for roadside bombs – a task that took up most of its first two deployments.
The battalion, which includes 500 soldiers from Fort Lewis and about 250 from Fort Hood, Texas, is largely stationed at Contingency Operating Base Adder outside Tallil, though a company is working near Balad in central Iraq.
The engineers deployed in April and should return from its 15-month tour this summer. The battalion previously served during the 2003 invasion and again in 2005-06.
Helmlinger, a University Place native, said the difference between deployments is stark.
"Violence and the number of (improvised explosive devices) are down to a fraction of what they were two years ago," he said. "On our route clearance patrols, we now average two IEDs a week, instead of two a day, which has freed us to focus on other engineer missions."
That largely means long hours on creating and widening roads and installing culverts so they don’t wash out during the rainy season, said Sgt 1st Class Jaime Lopez.
The battalion served in Kirkuk in northern Iraq from May to October and then moved to COB Adder so the battalion could work with engineers from the Iraqi army, said Lopez, a 29-year-old platoon sergeant who lives on post at Fort Lewis.
Much of the partnership work involves building construction, but the Iraqis are beginning to become more involved in road work, Lopez said. The task can be challenging at times: The Iraqi army uses equipment that ranges from brand new to barely functioning. And then there’s overcoming an ingrained habit of neglect.
"We’re working with them to overcome a culture of using something without maintaining it, until it breaks," Helmlinger said. "Most engineer equipment – big construction equipment – requires a lot of maintenance."
The soldiers work in platoons of 24-28 members, with some providing security while others operating heavy equipment. Lopez believes road-building is part of the hearts-and-minds mission that the latest phase of the war is about.
"The roads aren’t just for coalition forces," he said by phone. "The Iraqi people travel along the same roads as us. They notice the improvements, and I’m sure they appreciate it."
Two of the battalion’s soldiers have died during the deployment – one by suicide, another in a vehicle accident – and its route clearance missions provide constant reminders that Iraq remains dangerous.
About a third of the unit’s soldiers are involved in route-clearance missions, patrolling the streets and spotting roadside bombs before they detonate. They’re also training Iraqis to do the same task; the third class of Iraqi soldiers, each of about 15 students, graduated earlier this month,
The company also provides route clearance operations for British military engineers in nearby Basra.
The bombs, while fewer in number, have become much more powerful, said Sgt. Jonathan Weller, a 26-year-old DuPont resident. Many of them are explosively formed penetrators, which shoot copper charges and can tear through many armored vehicles.
To counter them, soldiers are patrolling in Mine Resistant Ambushed Protected vehicles, or MRAP, which have a V-shaped hull designed to deflect away blasts from below the vehicle. The patrols can last anywhere from four to 12 hours, though some have been known to last as long as 22 hours.
The work requires vigilance and source-building; Iraqis sometimes provide tips on where they think a bomb might be plated, Weller said.
"We’ve got a lot of eyes looking out the windows – front windows, side windows, back windows," he said by phone. "We’ve got some high-tech cameras we use to try to spot from a long way off. But it really comes down to training – training your eyes to spot the difference in terrain. You drive the same route every day, and you look for what’s changed."
The rest of the day is spent on COB Adder, an outpost of about 10,000 people. Daily life, Helminger said, could be worse: The base is well-developed and the temperature in the southeastern portion of the country often reaches into the 60s and 70s during the day.
"The base can be pretty comfortable, relatively speaking, with PXs and very nice dining facilities," Helmlinger said. "Quality of life is pretty good."
Lopez agreed – the gyms and dining options are especially good, he said. But he’s looking forward to the unit’s return to Fort Lewis this summer.
"We’re past the halfway mark," he said. "So far, so good."