Combat Engineers make it and break it for 24th MEU

3 Jan 2002 | Staff Sgt. Bryan P. Reed

With the wind beginning to pick up and the hot sun beating down on the dusty desert floor, Marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) began arriving at their new home for the next few weeks.

The place looked like your typical desert scene with small mountains in the background and nothing but brown dirt as far as the eye can see. But by the time the Marines finally left, the place had had become a bustling base camp supporting all of the MEU's elements.

During the height of operations, the place took on a life of its own, and no longer looked like an arid piece of earth. Instead it resembled a small rural village. There were tents scattered around everywhere for sleeping and working. Vehicle maintenance bays were in full operation and there were outdoor toilets and a berm offering safety and privacy to the Marines living there.

But as the exercise wrapped up and the MEU headed back to its ships in the USS Nassau Amphibious Ready Group, the base camp was returned back to the desert as if no one was ever there.

Change the location and environment, and this scene has been repeated time and again by the hard work of the Marines of Combat Engineer Platoon, Battalion Landing Team, 2nd Bn., 2nd Marines, who throughout the MEU's recent deployment, have set up, maintained, and broken down camps across Europe and the Middle East. These Marines have also honed their skills through civil affairs projects and combat scenarios.

"We have set up camps everywhere we've gone and fortified them every way we could," said Cpl. Ricardo A. Gil from McHenry, Ill., squad leader, Engineer Plt.

During the MEU's most recent exercise, the engineers, with the help of their heavy equipment, constructed the base camp and built all of the targets used during the live-fire exercises there.  They also set up machine gun pits and built a berm around the camp with their Armored Covered Earth Movers.

They helped out the Motor Transport sections by building mechanic's pits in the maintenance bays, which allowed the Marines working on the vehicles to have better access. Another way they helped out was by digging fire pits that were used to burn trash. All of these things led to the overall success of the exercise.

An interesting fact about these Combat Engineers is that when it comes to building things they shoot from the hip. They don't carry around an inventory of blue prints already drawn up. "We draw up our blue prints as we go," said said Staff Sgt. Vestal Hensley from Sky Dusty, W.V., guide, Engineer Plt. "Once they tell us what they want, that's when we start to draw up the blueprints. 

But building and servicing base camps isn't all these Marines do. On several occasions, the engineers have put their useful skills to work in the local community.

"In Kosovo, we improved some roads and widened some hairpin turns," said Hensley. "We also improved a (fording point) in a river.

"We basically did a lot of roadwork when we were in Kosovo, improving roads and redirecting water so it wouldn't eat the road up," said Cpl. Peter Rodriguez, from Brooklyn, N.Y., heavy equipment mechanic, Engineer Plt. "We also tried to help out a town by redirecting the flow of a river away from houses."

Besides using their skills out in the community, combat engineers have that title for a reason. Apart from their duties at the base camp, they also train for different combat situations in which engineers would be needed. This means that sometimes instead of building something, the engineers are used to destroy something.

That's where Combat Engineer Platoon's demolitions capabilities come into play. While they can tear up things with all of their tools and heavy machinery, sometimes the mission just calls for explosives, and explosives they have.

"As far as demolitions, we have C-4, bangalore torpedoes, dynamite, T.N.T., and line charges. If you want it blown up we can blow it up," said Hensley. "We have formulas to know just how much explosives (need) to be used on different materials of different thickness. Concrete, compacted dirt, steel and trees, we can cut through them all."

With all these skills wrapped into one platoon, the combat engineers pack a powerful punch for the MEU. "We're a small detachment but we bring a lot. That pretty much sums it up for engineers," said Gil.