Whether at home or in a combat zone, naval construction battalions face daunting challenges.
The air ripples with the unsettling sound of inbound mortar rounds. At the U.S. base in Ar Ramadi in western Iraq, the Seabees of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 133 dive into a concrete bunker. As the rounds explode, Chief Steelworker Michael Romero, one of the senior non-coms at the battalion's Ar Ramadi detachment, spots a Humvee with two of his Seabees inside. They hop out, looking for cover. "Drive, don"t walk!" Romero barks, adding to no one in particular, "They're safer in the truck." But the Seabees don't hear him and trot toward the sound of his voice.
Now the noise of outgoing counterfire joins the screams of incoming. Nearby, a truck is burning. All the Seabees make it safely to cover and Romero looks relieved. When the all-clear sounds, he calls for an accounting of his troops.
Within minutes, the Seabees are back at work, hammering together a new wooden hut-a welcome addition to this muddy, primitive base.
It's 22 January 2006, another day in restive Al Anbar province, where Marines and soldiers fight daily battles with Sunni insurgents and foreign fighters slipping across the border from Syria. Building things amid all this destruction, and in such a remote and inhospitable place, isn't easy. But then, being a Seabee rarely is.
The Navy's eight active-duty construction battalions and their reserve counterparts are in high demand all over the world. In mid-January, 133, the reserve 22nd NMCB, and elements of 133's parent command, the 30th Naval Construction Regiment (NCR), were scattered in small detachments all over western Iraq, or air bases at Al Taqaddum and Al Asad, in Fallujah and Ar Ramadi, and at the border outpost of Rawah. Seabees construct buildings, repair runways, and maintain decrepit infrastructure inherited from the former Iraqi army and air force. The pace of work is relentless for the unit's 650 men and women. And the end of one six-month deployment to Iraq promises only a short break before the next. This is the battalion's third time in Iraq since the 2003 invasion.
This deployment is harder than most. In late August, hurricane Katrina devastated the 133rd's home base of Gulfport, Mississippi. Many Seabees lost homes and possessions. Regardless of personal losses, in the aftermath of the hurricane the battalion was active in recovery efforts. Then, in September, the unit deployed to Iraq, leaving behind ruined homes and marooned families.
"I'm starting over," says Utilitiesman First Class Keith Lefebvre, who lost his $200,000 home in the hurricane. Now he's head of Al Taqaddum's base maintenance section-essentially the super to a sprawling facility housing thousands of soldiers, sailors, and Marines. "We can get maintenance problems as simple as replacing a light bulb to as complicated as rewiring an entire grid. Everything's reactive here. There's not much we can do to schedule work."
Flexibility is the name of the game. No one knows that better than Lieutenant Commander Jeff Giles from the 30th NCR. From his shack at Al Taqaddum, Giles supplies repair parts for all the Seabees in western Iraq. It's an unglamorous but vital job for a force that relies on a dizzying variety of heavy equipment.
Giles says that, whenever possible, he gets parts locally or from Kuwait. But most of what the Seabees need is available only from the States. "My biggest challenge is sourcing parts from the U.S.," he admits.
There's just no easy way to get anything-men or material-from North America all the way to desolate Al Anbar province, where the roads prickle with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and the weather routinely grounds helicopters. To protect the ground convoys that are the most reliable mode of transportation, the Seabees have their own convoy escort teams mounted in up-armored Humvees. One such team is manned by the 22nd's reservists, many of whom are policemen in civilian life and who "take their jobs [in Iraq] very seriously," according to Romero. Attacks on convoy escorts have injured four Seabees in recent months.
Giles says that when it comes to shipping the Seabees vital spare parts, for the initial legs at least, he relies increasingly on commercial package services such as DHL or FedEx. He credits these companies with reducing his logistics lead time considerably in recent months. But there are limits to what even DHL or FedEx can accomplish, and 133 often has to make do without heavy equipment. On 19 January, at a work site at Al Taqaddum, a Seabee is driving a grounding wire for a new hut into the cold wet ground, and doing it the hard way: by hand, grunting and gasping with each blow.
Despite the challenges of working in Al Anbar, this is not the most difficult nor most remote assignment for many of 133's or the 30th NCR's Seabees. For his part, Giles describes a career spanning decades and continents. Perhaps his most memorable assignment took him to the Ethiopian-Eritrean border as a U.N. observer of the ceasefire between these warring countries. For months Giles lived in a hut with observers from all over the world, braving roving murderous thugs, pesky monkeys and aggressive snakes, and doubling as a member of an ambulance crew for the impoverished local community.
Giles' globetrotting is typical of senior Seabees. Al Taqaddum's Chief Steelworker Jose Torres and his boss, Senior Chief Equipment Operator Bob Crandall, in addition to routine deployments to war zones such as Haiti and Bosnia and vacation spots including Spain and Italy, have both worked on science stations in Antarctica, and Torres even made it to the South Pole. "I've got the certificate," he says.
But perhaps the most challenging job the Seabees have tackled in recent years was in their own hometown. Utilitiesman Third Class William Ladner was only 20 years old, fresh out of boot camp and recently married, when he fled Gulfport ahead of the hurricane. Returning to town along with other refugee Seabees, Ladner wound up working in a distribution center, while the rest of the 133rd cleared roads, repaired roofs, and made flooded homes livable. The picture he paints is of devastation worse than anything he's seen in Iraq.
Romero had just posted to the unit when Katrina hit-and in the aftermath, in addition to the battalion's recovery efforts, he volunteered his (rare) spare time to help friends and neighbors who had suffered losses. "I eventually had to start saying no."
At Ar Ramadi, Romero and his detachment are putting the finishing touches on a fortified, mortar-proof chow hall that will serve up to 4,000 meals a day to resident Marines and soldiers. Winter rains have flooded the facility, requiring reinforcement and fresh concrete seals, but a shortage of heavy equipment has made the work tedious. "We don't have the convenience of ordering up a cement truck," Romero says, watching two Seabees hauling buckets full of concrete up a ladder.
Even buckets are in short supply, and on 24 January, one Seabee chief at Ar Ramadi was sneaking around post "borrowing" any unsecured buckets. As Torres says, "Seabees get the job done."
It's during one of these bucket-liberating forays that an alarm sounds and the chief, Romero, and other Seabees dart for cover in the concrete bunkers that dot the muddy expanse of this, the latest in a long line of dangerous, devastated locales to benefit from the attention of the Navy's hard-working construction battalions.
Mr. Axe is a freelance writer based in Columbia, South Carolina. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice and The Washington Times .