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Combat engineers unearth 500-plus weapons caches, save lives in Iraq

24 Mar 2006 | Cpl. Adam C. Schnell

Iraq’s roadways are a bit safer, thanks to a platoon of Marine combat engineers here.

Marine combat engineers from C Company, 1st Combat Engineer Battalion, have discovered more than 500 weapons caches in the area, the most discovered by a single unit in the massive western-part of Al Anbar Province.

The unearthed caches, found over the past six months during the unit’s deployment to Iraq, contained a variety of explosives and ordinance, ranging from bullets, to anti-tank mines and artillery and tank rounds. The explosives are used by enemy forces to make roadside bombs - commonly called ‘improvised explosive devices’ – the number one killer of Coalition Forces in Iraq in the past year.

“As combat engineers we are always expected to be an inch deep and a mile wide,” said 1st Lt. Christopher D. Troughton, the combat engineer platoon commander. “What I mean by this is that we are expected to be able to do a lot of different things but never really get a chance to become experts at one thing.”

When the engineers began their deployment here more than six months ago, they weren’t sure what to expect while working with 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment – the infantry unit assigned to provide security in the “Triad” region of Haqlaniyah, Haditha, and Barwanah.

“Without the combat engineers around, we would never find as many caches as we do,” said 2nd Lt. Charlie Loya Jr., a Lamirada, Calif., native and a platoon commander for the battalion’s I Company. “They really know how to use the metal detectors.”

Historically, combat engineers are called upon to perform a number of tasks, such as constructing buildings, demolition, emplacing barriers, beefing up installation security measures, sweeping for mines and hidden weapons caches.

The platoon’s 40 Marines did it all.

As the engineers rid the area of enemy bomb-making material, they also helped to save Marines’ lives by constructing hardened shelters, such as those found at the various firm bases and entry control points throughout the region. They built more than 40 hardened structures, which provide shelter from enemy attacks.

Each post was built for a specific purpose, to serve a specific mission for a specific unit.

The engineers say no two structures are exactly alike.

“When I build something I always think of the people that will be using it,” said Cpl. Kurt Gellert, a combat engineer from Atlantic City, N.J. “They are the ones out there and I need to make sure that what I built will protect them in any circumstance.”

Although new to the “Triad” region when they arrived here last year, most of the platoon’s engineers are not new to deployments in Iraq. The platoon heavily relied on their Iraqi Freedom veterans to provide expertise when searching for caches in Iraq’s volatile Al Anbar Province.

“Some of the Marines were experienced operators and were able to provide good knowledge to the newer Marines,” said Troughton, a Torrington, Conn., native. “They knew finding caches was one of the things we do, but no one expected us to find as many as we did.

Though metal detectors are a “very useful tool” to discover hidden munitions, the platoon’s success came from the Marines’ experience and a keen eye, according to Troughton, 33.

Some of the engineers say they had to “put themselves in the enemy’s shoes and think like an insurgent” when combing Iraq’s roadways, towns and open desert.

“You kind of get an eye for it,” said Pfc. Grant B. Jewell, a combat engineer and Denver native. “The metal detector is really useful, but usually the insurgents will leave a clue letting us know where they are hiding the caches.”

With their deployment winding down, Marines from 1st CEB will soon reunite with family and friends when they return to their base at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

They can do so knowing they’ve made a difference here, and have saved lives.

Their next mission: to pass on what they’ve learned and experienced here to the next wave of combat engineers who will rotate into Iraq.

“This deployment has been nothing but a positive experience and victory in the [area of operation],” said Troughton. “The Marines rose to every occasion and gained many experiences that will help them in the future.”