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Marine engineers ‘dig’ broad mission in Iraq

8 Mar 2006 | Cpl. William Skelton

Whether they’re sweeping for improvised explosive devices, reinforcing outlying posts or joining foot patrols, combat engineers with 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, stay busy.

“When it comes to being an engineer, our field is so broad,” said Gunnery Sgt. Anthony J. Easton, the 30-year-old engineer platoon sergeant from Saint Cloud, Minn. “We really focus on survivability, mobility, counter-mobility and things of that nature.”

The engineers support the battalion in a variety of ways. Recently, engineers fortified the Iraqi Police station in Gharmah against attacks by insurgents, Easton explained.  Improvements there made the station easier to defend and more survivable.  It’s a constant mission, one that calls for continuous vigilance.

They provided construction of barriers and other forms of protection for the Marines around Fallujah. Engineers also provide critical support daily for detecting weapons that could be used to create improvised explosive devices.

“We seem to focus a lot on cache sweeps,” Easton said. “There aren’t too many days that we don’t go out and not find something.”

Teams accompanied platoons on patrol and supported them by performing cache sweeps. The engineers carried metal detectors to search munitions. 

“We use metal detectors that allow us to sweep over areas of terrain to find different types of weapons,” said Lance Cpl. Luis J. Acosta, a 19-year-old engineer from Sacramento, Calif.

Lance Cpl. Fernando Barajas, a 20-year-old combat engineer from Memphis, Tenn., said they search nearly everything, but have a good idea of where they’re likely to find buried munitions.

“We search large sand dunes near abandoned houses or wells near crop fields,” Barajas explained.

Acosta added that the weapons caches often have tell-tale signs as well.  The ground appears to have been dug and repacked.  Marines patrol areas often enough to recognize when such sites look out of place.

“Usually they look fresh, like the sand has been disturbed recently,” he said.

The effort to find and retrieve these buried weapons and munitions is invaluable to the Marines and Iraqi soldiers.  Many of the caches are used to manufacture IEDs, used to target roving patrols or as bombs hidden in vehicles.  Cutting off the supply of these tools is vital to starving the insurgents of their resources to conduct attacks.  Combat engineers are uniquely qualified for this sort of work.

“Combat engineers are a resource that cannot have a measure of worth placed on them,” Easton said. “The range of services they provide are immeasurable if they are used efficiently.”

That added value to the infantry isn’t lost on the average Marine.  They know that with each buried bomb engineers find, another Marine’s life was saved.

“We wouldn’t be able to do our jobs thoroughly without the help of the engineers, said Cpl. Paul A. Bennett, a 21-year-old squad leader with Weapons Company from San Diego.

It’s the variety of skills the combat engineers harbor that enable them to flex to the adapting environment and work find a role in nearly every mission.

“When graduated from boot camp I really didn’t know what exactly I would be doing most of the time,” Barajas said. “I thought I would be doing mostly construction.”

Nearly every day, combat engineers are unearthing buried weapons or building improvements for force protection.  It’s a job they see tangible results and know their work keeps Marines safe.

“Every day we have the opportunity to get weapons out of the hands of insurgents or make some building a little safer to work in,” Barajas said. “It makes me proud to know I am helping to save Marines lives.