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Sgt. John P. O’Connor and Sgt. Ricardo Pereyra-Garcia prepare to check the depth of the Helmand River from an improved ribbon bridge for a daily river report outside of Combat Outpost Payne, Afghanistan, May 11. A half dozen Marine combat engineers from Marine Wing Support Squadron 272, based out of Marine Corps Air Station New River, N.C., teamed up with their U.S. Army counterparts to lend a hand with the bridge’s upkeep. O’Connor and Pereyra-Garcia are both combat engineers with MWSS-272.

Photo by Cpl. Rashaun X. James

Joint engineering effort builds bridges between US Army, Marines

17 May 2011 | Cpl. Rashaun X. James

In early February, Marines from the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion found themselves in a difficult predicament with a vehicle stuck in the rising waters of Afghanistan’s Helmand River.

Days later, the 814th Engineer Company, a U.S. Army unit based out of Fort Polk, La., which specializes in the construction of improved ribbon bridges, arrived on the scene at Combat Outpost Payne.

“We got word that the river had risen considerably,” said Sgt. 1st Class Roberto Franco, a platoon sergeant with the 814th Engineer Company. “The following day we heard that one of 3rd LAR’s vehicles had gotten stuck trying to cross the river. We began our 10-vehicle convoy down to COP Payne from Camp Leatherneck to begin constructing a bridge across the river.”

Members of 3rd LAR Bn., part of 2nd Marine Division (Forward), said the bridge has allowed the battalion more versatility during the season when the Helmand River is at its highest.  

“Having the bridge here has yielded remarkable results,” said Master Gunnery Sgt. Phillip Bemis, the operations chief for 3rd LAR Bn. “It has provided freedom of movement for 3rd LAR and our coalition partners to conduct operations in the southern Helmand valley as well as operations in the division’s security area down south.”

Bemis said as the river started swelling, it began hindering the battalion’s operations. So once the 814th Engineer Company arrived, the LAR  battalion’s priority became not only working toward its own mission accomplishment, but ensuring the engineers had everything they needed.

“Once we got down here I understood that the LAR needed it to do their operations at the border,” said Franco. “It was then that we realized the importance of having this done in a timely manner.”

However, putting the bridge up was no easy feat. The 814th Engineer Company encountered several challenges, which inhibited their mission in its early stages.

“The water sometimes seems like our greatest enemy here. At one point the [Kajaki] dam was let out and it rained so much that we had rapids coming down,” Franco said. “We still managed to maintain the bridge. Finally the water subsided, and we were able to maintain the bridge with a lot of maintenance hours on the Marine side and our side.”

Though the U.S. Army was primarily responsible for erecting the bridge, maintaining and managing it has become a joint effort. A half dozen Marine combat engineers from Marine Wing Support Squadron 272, based out of Marine Corps Air Station New River, N.C., teamed up with their U.S. Army counterparts to lend a hand with the bridge’s upkeep.

On average, an improved ribbon bridge is only supposed to stay in place for a few months, but through the continued efforts of both the U.S. Army and Marine Corps engineers, it continues to serve its purpose in supporting combat operations around Combat Outpost Payne.

“Our job out here is to support the Army with maintaining the bridge, while the river is too deep to ford across,” said Sgt. John P. O’Connor, a combat engineer and the bridge noncommissioned officer in charge with MWSS-272. “We’ve been here since mid-March performing preventive maintenance on the boats and trucks, manning guard posts, assisting the convoys with getting across the bridge and monitoring the river.”

The MWSS-272 Marines were the second group of Marines to assist with bridge operations.

“We had an earlier group of ten Marines from the 8th Engineer Support Battalion that we were able to train before we came out here,” said Franco. “Although we weren’t able to train the second group from MWSS-272 before they came, but there is nothing these Marines won’t do. If you tell them something to do, they do it right away, without question.”

So the MWSS-272 engineers have done most of their training for the upkeep while they are on the job. Only a couple of the Marines had previous experience operating the Mark II bridge erection boats.

“When we got here only two of us had used these boats before,” O’Connor said. “Now the majority of us know how to use them, which makes things go a lot smoother.”

“One of the biggest challenges we had was removing the bays of the bridge and adding them back in based on the water level,” said Sgt. Ricardo Pereyra-Garcia, a combat engineer with MWSS-272. “We use the boats to keep the bridge steady and make adjustments to the bridge’s bays when needed.”

As the time for 3rd LAR to return to Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., and hand over duties to 2nd LAR Bn. approached, Bemis said he felt the need to address the soldiers of the 814th Engineer Company at Combat Outpost Payne, and thank them for their assistance.

“You all did fantastic work,” said Bemis to the Louisiana soldiers, May 12. “As that water started rising we would have never gotten across to do the missions we’ve been doing. Your part in putting that bridge up and everything you went through with placing the anchors and the cables and all the breakaways was a part of the bigger picture.  It just says a lot about you. It’s one team, one fight, I can’t say that enough.”

And though a new unit will soon operate out of Combat Outpost Payne, work for the Marines and soldiers who maintain the bridge isn’t over.

“We will be here until the river is low enough to ford across without the use of the bridge,” said O’Connor, a Webberville, Mich., native. “Once this happens, the Army engineers will leave and we will leave with them.”

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Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point