By Army Sgt. Jerry Saslav
Special to American Forces Press Service
Sept. 12, 2008 - The soldiers of Earth Movers Platoon, Company B, 46th Engineer Combat Battalion, gathered for their mission briefing. They would pick up a quality assurance/quality control team and then head into Baghdad's Sadr City district. The men are heavy-equipment operators and supervisors, but they haven't done that job in months. Increasingly, Iraqis are doing their own building.
After the briefing, the troops of the 46th ECB, attached to Multinational Division Baghdad's 926th Engineer Brigade, took a moment, formed a circle, linked arms and prayed; then they loaded into their mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles and headed out.
The platoon provides security for a QA/QC team as it checks on the quality of coalition forces-funded projects being carried out by Iraqi contractors. The engineers provide transportation and physical security for their fellow engineers, and the team visits about 120 sites a week.
The soldiers cannot always drive to each construction site; they normally walk in.
"Security's first," said Army 1st Lt. Jeremy Atkinson, a native of New Orleans, who serves as the platoon leader. "We use infantry tactics as for how we move. Our primary focus is always the security and safety of the people we escort."
For this mission, the team visited a park, a performing arts center and a few schools, all under various stages of construction.
The first stop was the Talley Performing Arts Center, where a building to house a concession stand, storage and offices is being built at one end of the lot, with the theater located at the other end.
As the team members got out of their MRAPs, the engineers fanned out and pulled security while the QA/QC members started their inspection. Army Staff Sgt. Romualdo Portes was the first soldier out of the back of his vehicle.
"When I roll out of the vehicles, everything goes through your mind," said Portes, a native of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, who serves with the 46th ECB. "You've got to remember your training. You've got to picture the possibilities of getting hit, sniper fire, a suicide vest, anything."
The team tries to spend as little time on the ground as possible while allowing the QA/QC members the time they need.
"It's kind of unique to see how the Iraqis actually build their structures, vs. how we build in the U.S. They work hard; they're dedicated to what they do, and they do their best at it," said Rhodes, a Company B platoon sergeant.
There was no heavy machinery present at the site, which primarily was manned by Iraqi laborers using hand tools.
"It's kind of interesting, looking at them work, because we have equipment to work with, and whatever they have they make do with it," said Army Staff Sgt. Mario Haywood, a Los Angeles native.
After a short time on the ground, the team headed to schools in the northeastern Baghdad district. They drove to some and walked to others.
"We look for strange items along the streets, unusual scenery around the schools," Rhodes said. "Normally when we go to the schools, there are people working and walking around the schools; but if we get to a school that's totally empty, it makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck and raises a red flag."
At one school the team walked to, Haywood, a Company B squad leader, positioned himself at the gate.
"You feel good, because you're watching out for your guys," he said. "You're watching out for the innocent civilians, and you're also watching out for the guys who are checking these schools and making sure that these young kids have somewhere to go to get educated, to have parks to play in [and] soccer fields to play on."
In very little time, Haywood found himself confronted by 20 children – all of whom were vying for his attention. It is a situation, he said, that he doesn't mind.
"I have kids myself," he said as he kept a watchful eye on the surrounding buildings. "If we're in an area that is not too safe, then I shoo them away, because we have protection and they don't."
As Haywood manned the entrance, other members of the Earth Movers provided security around the rest of the compound.
"We're looking for any kind of possible booby traps or possible [improvised-explosive devices] inside the school," explained Atkinson, a Company B platoon leader. "There's always the threat that there may be somebody with some kind of small arms waiting for you inside the school."
Not many workmen were visible at this school -- just the caretaker and his family.
"It's a good feeling, knowing that we're going through the schools, making sure the schools are ready for the year," Rhodes said, "because education is a plus to all kids, not only our kids in the U.S. The kids clap and they sing songs in their native language, giving us praise for the things that we're doing."
One of the stops was a park, called Regular 6 Park by the Multinational Division Baghdad troops, after Task Force 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment's commander, who led the effort to regain security in this war-torn district. The park had been close to completion once before. However, upon inspection, it was decided that a better job could be done, so the contractor started over. While the contractor was working, children used the park.
"The kids are always in the park having fun," Rhodes said. "It's a good feeling seeing the little kids being able to enjoy life like our kids enjoy life back home."
Violence dominated daily life here as recently as spring of this year.
"The park's a little more risky, because you're out in the open vs. being in a school, where you've got good surroundings," Atkinson said. "Once you've cleared the school, you're pretty safe inside. We have to make sure we still shake the hands of the kids, pass out candy and water bottles – at the same time, maintain an aggressive posture, ready to strike if someone should try to strike us."
The QA/QC team inspected the park and found some damage. The contractor said while the damage was being done at night by area children, he would have it fixed.
Then it was Portes' turn to be approached by the curious children. He joked with them, all the while scanning the area to ensure there were no potential threats. While he and the rest of the platoon are not necessarily performing the jobs they had trained to do, the soldiers say they are gratified by their role.
"It's rewarding when the kids smile at you, and they know that you're there for a reason," Portes said. "It's not to kill or to invade, like some of the bad guys like to think so. They know that you're there for a good reason: it's to help them out.
"I love when the kids approach me and they try to shake my hand," he continued. "When you think about it, they're around 6, 7 [years old] now; they're going to remember my face. They might not remember names, but they'll definitely remember that one person, that one American soldier that took the time, that took a picture with them and shook their hands. We're changing the area. We're helping the people of Iraq."
(Army Sgt. Jerry Saslav serves in Multinational Division Baghdad with the Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs Office.)