Story and photos by Cpl. Bryan Nygaard
GARMSIR, Afghanistan — During the last week of January, fifty-five Marines of Bridge Platoon, Alpha Company, 9th Engineer Support Battalion, 2nd Marine Logistics Group (Forward) traveled nearly 80 miles through the central portion of Helmand province in order to reach Combat Outpost Rankel, a small base located in the district of Garmsir, Helmand province. Their mission consisted of removing a medium girder bridge and replacing it with a more permanent and cost-efficient structure that would increase the mobility of the Marines and Afghans in the area.
However, getting to the bridge site was half of the battle. The Marines convoyed from Leatherneck to Rankel in armored vehicles carrying more than 100,000 pounds of construction equipment and building materials, on roads that were often unpaved. The convoy was held up several times by stuck vehicles and threats from possible IEDs (improvised explosive devices). As a result, the convoy took nearly 5 days to reach a destination that would normally take 30 minutes by helicopter.
The Marines, many of whom were packed tightly together while wearing their body armor, slept sitting up inside of the armored vehicles, while others stood watch in the gun turret.
“It sucks, but after a while you kind of get used to it,” said Lance Cpl. Rodolfo Lopezsosa, a combat engineer in Bridge Platoon and a native of Edinburgh, Texas. “You go to sleep for a few hours, you wake up, you get all the energy drinks you can and you’re good to go. You’ll be good for the day.”
After finally arriving at Rankel, the Marines bedded down for the night and headed out to the bridge site early next morning.
The site was only a few minutes’ drive from Rankel and is near an observation post occupied by Afghan National Police. The bridge was built over a large creek, enhancing the mobility of the Marines of India Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, who operate out of Rankel.
Before breaking ground on the site, the Marines used minesweepers to clear the area of any possible IED’s in order to make it safe to work and maneuver heavy equipment. Once the area had been deemed safe, the Marines unloaded their tools and began working.
First, sections of earth were removed on both sides of the ditch with an excavator. Marines followed up by using shovels and pickaxes to break up some of the harder ground and then used a tractor to finish it off. Using a dirt tamper, they leveled off the ground in order to begin laying the concrete footers that served as the bridge’s foundation. Once that was finished, the Marines hooked cables up to the footers, which weighed several hundred pounds, and used an excavator to pick them up and set them in place.
While the majority of Bridge Platoon was working, several of the Marines provided security. They provided overwatch while standing in the gun turrets of the armored vehicles that were surrounding the bridge site. Their day was spent waving off farmers who were herding their sheep and camels through the area.
Lance Cpl. Jesus Penagraves had spent the entire ride down to Rankel in the turret of an armored vehicle. Whenever he felt tired or sleepy, Penagraves would look toward the bridge site, where his fellows Marines were working non-stop.
“One of the things that went through my mind was, ‘Man, it must suck working out there,’” said Penagraves, a native of Houston. “I’m just standing up in the turret and I’m tired. Imagine how they’re doing while they’re working. They got it rough. They’re doing all the manual labor.”
Stiff winds cooled the Marines off as they worked through the night. Utilizing the headlights on the heavy equipment, the Marines were able to move the rest of the bridge into place. By dawn the next morning, the bridge was almost complete.
Even though the Marines were rotated on and off of the bridge site, no one got more than 5 hours of sleep. Sgt. Joseph Redman, a squad leader in Bridge Platoon, put in 29 straight hours of work that had him directing heavy equipment, guiding the Marines and doing quality control until 1st Lieutenant Matt Paluta, the commander of Bridge Platoon, told him to get some sleep in one of the vehicles.
Once the Marines were finished constructing the bridge, they quickly went to work disassembling the medium girder bridge that was already in place. The parts of the MGB will be sent back to Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany, Ga., where they will be sent out to different engineering units to be used for training purposes.
“You’re looking at a major difference,” said Paluta, a native of Cincinnati. “We put in a permanent structure for $60,000 and took out a temporary bridge that costs a couple million dollars. To pull that off with the quality of workmanship that we did … our attention to detail was never lacking. We made it a quality product for both the Marines of (3rd Bn., 3rd Marines) and for the Afghan people.”
Many Afghans from surrounding villages had expressed to the Marines that they did not like the old bridge because its high pitch in the middle prevented them from seeing the ground on the other side. One Afghan, an elder from one of the villages, expressed his gratitude for the new bridge.
“He said he really appreciates the bridge,” said Paluta. “He said they need a really good quality bridge. He was grateful for the Marines’ hard work.”
Staff Sgt. Brian Glory, the platoon sergeant for Bridge Platoon, has deployed to Iraq twice and remembers how much easier it was to move from place to place to complete a mission.
“The movement piece was a lot easier in Iraq,” said Glory, a native of Tulsa, Okla. “It was a lot simpler to me. It was a simpler way of life. There was an infrastructure. There were roads. Here there is nothing. There’s absolutely nothing. We saw that on the way here. We moved through open desert with 100,000 pounds plus of equipment. It’s just ridiculous.
“In my eyes, this is an engineer’s war,” said Glory. “The mobility issues in this country are horrible. Combat Engineers are a force multiplier. We enhance the mobility for these units to be able to go in and establish a foothold [in] whatever area they are trying to go to. That’s really Bridge Platoon’s mission at this point: enhancing the mobility of whatever unit we need to.”