Aug. 11, 2009

Virginia Engineers, Iraqi Soldiers build up military base in Baghdad

By Sgt. Jeffrey A. Ledesma
Special Operations Task Force – Central Public Affairs

BAGHDAD — It was once a desolate area with sporadic patches of gravel and interwoven dirt roads outlined by plain gray barricades. However, since the Iraqi Special Operations Forces started calling this area “a home away from home,” many improvements have taken place.

  180th Engineer Company

1st Lt. Phillip Johnson, a platoon leader with the 180th Engineer Company, and Lt. Col. Adel, the Iraqi Special Operations Forces’ 3rd Support Battalion commander, open the gate to the new fuel station on a military compound in Baghdad July 30. U.S. and Iraqi Soldiers have been working to improve the Iraqi Special Operations Forces military complex for the last three months. (Photo by Army Sgt. Jeffrey A. Ledesma)

Smooth pavement were laid down, tall barricades were painted with images of patriotism, and lush lawns were more and more commonplace. 

U.S. Soldiers with the 180th Engineer Company and Iraqi Soldiers with the 3rd Support Battalion have been manning numerous projects over the last three months in an effort to better the military compound situated in the Iraqi capital.

Through an Arabic interpreter, the support battalion’s command sergeant major highlighted some of the projects during an interview near a recently opened fuel station.

According to the senior enlisted leader, key priorities for the brigade include the building up of the gas station and the extension of the ammunition holding area. The 28-year-old command sergeant major added that the team effort also helped combat wild fires that often spring up during Iraq’s hot and dry summers. 

“Having the engineer support in clearing fields all around family housing and the ammunition holding area is a huge success for all members of the area,” said Capt. Michael Zdrojesky of Philadelphia. “This decreases the chance of grass and weeds catching fire, which would relate into family homes or the AHA [ammunition holding area] catching on fire. All I have heard is praise from the families who live in this area.”

As a result of the U.S. and Iraqi combined effort, extensive work was also done on two motor pools.

A total of five fields were leveled, approximately 11,550 cubic meters of fill material was hauled, and an area more than 300 thousand square feet was cleared, according to a native of Fairfax, Va., 1st Lt. Phillip Johnson.

In addition, the engineers and Iraqis filled and emplaced 417 seven-foot tall and 524 four-foot tall Hesco barriers. However, building something out of nothing didn’t come effortlessly.

“The main challenge was keeping the heavy construction equipment fully operational,” said Johnson, a platoon leader who helped head the multiple projects. “We overcame this challenge by always having a maintenance support team on site, conducting thorough PMCS [preventive maintenance checks and services] and always providing good supervision.”

Despite minor set-backs, much was accomplished. At the conclusion of each project, most of which took approximately two to three weeks, Johnson said he felt a strong sense of accomplishment.

“I believe that the fuel point force protection and the grub and clearing of fields by family housing have improved their overall quality of life,” said Johnson. “Now the fuel point has proper protection from theft and is compartmentalized to reduce the risk of fire.”

During the three months, the U.S. and Iraqi Soldiers worked directly with one another to accomplish their goals.

“I like the way they were able to work together like it was one job, one hand,” said the battalion command sergeant major. “It was great seeing Soldiers of different uniforms work together and watching their friendship grow.”

“It is like a brotherhood,” he continued. “We felt like there was no difference between American and Iraqi. We were one Army – the same Army and we helped each other the whole way through.”

Zdrojesky, the U.S. advisor to the 3rd Battalion commander, said that the most rewarding part of the building up process is seeing Iraqis use the finished product the very next day. He added that it is important to constantly improve the base for the same reason U.S. infrastructure is constantly being improved. More specifically, he explained that military members must always improve and expand to maintain current operations.

“We want to make sure that the Iraqis can sustain their facilities and operations long after we leave the area,” the 25-year-old said.

Johnson, who is a technical analyst with Northrop Grumman Corporation when he is not on active duty, was in complete agreement.

“It is extremely important to improve their compound and ensure that they are self-sustainable, everything and anything that we can assist the ISOF with as far as improvements will leave them in a better spot as U.S. forces prepare for eventual reductions in forces,” Johnson stated.

Although most construction projects that the 180th Engineer Company does are temporary structures, Johnson said that it was great to build something that is going to be used by the people who live and operate here.

“I hope that the Iraqis do not simply settle for these structures, but constantly improve on them and develop them further,” Johnson added. “I feel confident that the impressions that we made there will encourage the ISOF to always improve upon their situation, be it their base, living conditions, or themselves.”

As Johnson’s deployment comes to an end, he said the one thing he will remember is coming onto the ISOF complex and being impressed. He added that it was by far the best Iraqi base he has seen during this tour.

“I think what makes this place is that the ISOF Soldiers take great pride in who they are and what they do,” said Zdrojesky. “If you have been here and have had the great pleasure of working with them, you understand where I am coming from.”

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