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Tankers bridge troubled waters

15 Mar 2006 | Gunnery Sgt. Mark Oliva

Grunts with 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment walk without fear thanks to a helping hand from tankers and a seldom used tool in their inventory.

Marines with D Company, 2nd Tank Battalion, assigned to Regimental Combat Team 5, recently deployed their M-60A1 Armored Vehicle Launched Bridge to help the infantry living north of Gharmah. It was the first time the tankers could recall the bridge being used since the initial thrust toward Baghdad in 2003.

The need for a reliable bridge arose after an existing bridge leading to an observation post began to degrade.  Marines trying to cross the bridge experienced a couple hair-raising crossings when the bridge began to give way and the humvees almost went into a canal.

“It was just a crappy old bridge,” said 2nd Lt. Steven E. Alsop, a 24-year-old platoon commander assigned to 1st Battalion’s A Company. “It started eroding and we almost lost the humvee in the water.

“It was kind of shaky,” said Alsop, from Elk Grove, Calif. “We had the doors open, ready to hop out, when it started sliding.”

Alsop knew he needed something better and tankers had the answer in their bridge launcher.  The 56-ton behemoth of a vehicle, carrying a 63-foot-long bridge, motored out to the observation post and in just minutes, the problem was solved.

“They were worried about the safety of the bridge,” said Capt. Matthew D. Fehmel, the tank company’s commander. “If that bridge was destroyed we wouldn’t be able to access the OP, which is critical in Gharmah. I was all for it.”

Lance Cpl. Bryan P. Kippes, a 21-year-old from Suffield, Ohio, and Cpl. Ryan C. Opick, a 27-year-old from Granger, Ind., sparked up the old tracked hulk and set off for the mission.  They had their reservations. The two tank mechanics practiced using the bridge at Camp Lejeune, N.C. and here at the camp in Iraq, but never laid a bridge that had to be used. They knew they were using equipment that was introduced into the Corps’ inventory in 1987, when they were just kids.

“It was kind of scary because it’s so old,” Kippes said. “It very rarely runs for such a long time because it requires so much maintenance. She gave us one good last run.”

Still, Kippes and Opick didn’t take any chances. They packed a tool box with every imaginable tool they thought they might need, just in case.

But the machine performed as advertised. 

“It kept up with the tanks,” Opick said. 

Once they got on site, they went to work immediately. They crept up to the old bridge, took a look and began moving it into position.

“When you first launch it, it’s over your head,” Kippes explained. “You see this massive piece of steel. It’s hard to believe it moves it, as old as it is.”

The bridge was pushed out in less than ten minutes, the whole operation lasting under an hour.

“The only adjustment we made was when they wanted it pushed forward,” Opick said.

“It’s what we wanted,” Alsop explained. “We asked for it and in a day turnover, they came right out and threw it down.”

Still, Kippes and Opick had to check to make sure the bridge would hold. That meant driving the 56-ton bridge launcher over. If it was going to fail, it would be under the enormous weight of their lumbering vehicle based on an old tank’s chassis. Kippes mashed the accelerator and climbed over his bridge, praying for the best and preparing for the worst. If the bridge failed, it would be about a 15-foot drop into the water below.

“I wanted to close my eyes,” he admitted. “I looked down and that was my biggest mistake.”

But it held.

“I was pretty impressed,” he said. “I went back and went over it again.”

Fehmel, a 31-year-old from Newport, R.I., explained the bridge is designed to hold even the heaviest of vehicles Marines use, the nearly 70-ton M-1A1 Main Battle Tank. 

“It’s very durable,” he said. “It’s a fire-and-forget weapon. You put it on the deck and pick it up when you’re done.”

Alsop said his Marines couldn’t be happier about the new bridge. They no longer go over with white-knuckles, waiting to bail out from a falling humvee.

“They’re not scare to go over the bridge now,” he said. “If that bridge wasn’t there, a vehicle would go into the canal. It works. It does its job. There’s no more pucker-factor.”

Kippes said it made him proud to know that a couple hours of his time is keeping Marines safe out on the field.

“It makes me feel like we accomplished a mission above the mission we’re here for,” he said. “It feels good.”