By Army Staff Sgt. Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
Jan. 21, 2009 - While combating terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan for nearly a decade, the U.S. military has learned it takes more than infantrymen and "trigger-pullers" to win a counterinsurgency fight. Recent improvements in Iraq's infrastructure and security have never been more prevalent, and the Iraqi people have nonlethal military elements such as engineers, health care providers and civil affairs troops to thank, Army Lt. Col. Paul Olsen, who commands a unique battalion of Army engineers, said.
Olsen's engineers make up the smallest career field and only battalion of its kind in the military, he said. The 249th Engineer Battalion specializes in maintaining, improving, restoring and establishing electrical power. Nicknamed "Prime Power," the soldiers are assigned to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and provide commercial-level power and technical advice to military units and federal relief organizations.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, Prime Power troops not only establish and maintain the power necessary for combatant commanders to monitor the battlefield, but also improve quality of life among the local populace. Large areas of both countries have been without basic, or even minimal, essential services for years, Olsen said.
"You won't see Prime Power [soldiers] on the front lines, but after major combat operations are over, you need that transition into the specialized units that can facilitate nation building," he said.
Although the front lines are a blurred notion across the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, Prime Power soldiers have found themselves with missions outside their base camps in recent years, "winning over hearts and minds," Olsen said.
"You have to give the people what they need -- sewers, water, electricity, trash [and] all those essential services -- and power is essential," he said
As the U.S. troop surge began showing progress in Iraq, the strategy there changed. Most nonlethal military skills, such as those of Olsen's engineers, were in increasing demand. Changes and updates made to the Army's counterinsurgency doctrine eventually shifted Prime Power troops to focus their skills to help the local populace rather than only sustaining life support for coalition forces on the base camps, he said.
"That's what I think is one of the most significant changes to the Prime Power mission over the last two years," Olsen explained. "We've shifted much of our efforts off the base camps to support irregular warfare and counterinsurgency doctrine, and we're doing so in Afghanistan as well.
"Our Army understands that we need to do simultaneous offensive, defensive and stability operations," he continued, "and having Prime Power [soldiers] and other specialized units will make conducting stability operations that much more effective."
Olsen recalled improvements Prime Power soldiers made to Iraq's Haditha Dam in March. The dam is the country's second-largest hydropower plant, and without it, most of Baghdad would not have electricity, he said.
Prime Power soldiers more than doubled the capacity of the dam's turbines, "lighting up tens of thousands of homes," many of which had never before had power, he said.
Prime Power soldiers attained similar results in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood, Olsen said, where schools and hospitals are running more efficiently because of the area's improved power grid.
"It's all about standing up essential services for the Iraqi people, to help them gain confidence in the new Iraqi government," he added. "It's enabling Iraqis to help themselves."
With the recent expansion of their wartime missions, the battalion's senior enlisted soldier, Army Command Sgt. Maj. Clinton J. Pearson, said the Prime Power troops are getting back to their roots as a domestic response force.
"Now that we're off the [base camps] a little more, we're back to the root of our mission," Pearson said. "We've reverted back to the core reason we exist, which is to provide electrical power where there hasn't been or where's there's insufficient amounts."
The career field and battalion comprise around 240 soldiers. The battalion's headquarters company and Company C, which was activated in September, are located at Fort Belvoir, Va. Company A is located at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii; Company B is based out of Fort Bragg, N.C.; and Team Delta is an Army Reserve team from Providence, R.I.
In addition to having platoons deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, the battalion has teams on 24-hour standby, ready to restore power in the event of natural disasters.