Thursday, February 2, 2006

RAMADI, Iraq — A U.S. Navy construction battalion fresh from Hurricane Katrina relief duty is battling the elements and daily insurgent attacks to build permanent bases in the dangerous Anbar province.

The famed Seabees of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 133, based in Gulfport, Miss., rode out Katrina in late August then immediately got to work clearing roads, repairing houses and delivering relief supplies in Gulfport and elsewhere in storm-ravaged Mississippi. A month later, the 650 sailors were deployed to a half-dozen sites in western Iraq to undertake a wide range of construction projects.

At Al Taqaddum air base, one of two large airfields in the province used by the United States and destined to be a logistics hub, 50 Seabees are repairing the dilapidated runways where, before 1991, Iraqi jets flew out to drop chemical weapons on Iraq’s Kurdish minority.

“Seriously old-fashioned” is how Chief Petty Officer Jose Torres of Uvalde, Texas, describes working conditions at Al Taqaddum. On Jan. 19, he met with Turkish contractors helping build a concrete plant that will support the runway repairs. A shortage of heavy equipment means the contractors have been hauling wet concrete in buckets.

Equipment shortages, the poor quality of local materials, harsh winter weather and frequent mortar attacks by insurgents complicate the Seabees’ work.

“It’s not a normal contract situation,” said Chief Petty Officer Torres, a steelworker, comparing his work with construction in the United States.

“Electricity here is a mess. It’s a disaster,” said electrician Charles Jacobs of Marksville, La.

His job at Al Taqaddum is to look after a decrepit Iraqi electrical grid that he says presents a serious fire hazard.

Seabees are accustomed to working in dangerous, remote places where supplies are hard to acquire. Recent deployments have taken the battalion to Haiti and Guam, and Seabees such as Chief Petty Officer Torres and his boss, Senior Chief Petty Officer Bob Crandall, an equipment operator, have worked stints at a research station in Antarctica, building protective domes.

The Seabees’ favorite projects are humanitarian in nature, said Senior Chief Petty Officer Crandall, a Montana native and a 25-year veteran of the force.

“Last time we were out here [in 2004], we did 15 schools. You don’t get to go out in the civilian community as much anymore. When the security situation improves, that might change,” he said.

Anbar in general, and the contested city of Ramadi in particular, have seen some of the heaviest fighting since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Marines and soldiers battle foreign fighters slipping across the porous Syrian border.

The threat dictates that all travel be at night, preferably by helicopter. But the unforgiving and unpredictable winter weather often grounds aircraft and forces U.S. troops to travel in heavily armed ground convoys. One Seabee detachment equipped with Humvees protected with extra armor has the job of escorting the speeding convoys. So far, four Seabees have been injured on escort duty.

Mortar attacks are a constant worry for high-ranking Seabees. On Jan. 22 at the Ramadi detachment, the Seabees had set aside their tools for an afternoon barbecue when several mortar rounds exploded nearby, setting a truck ablaze and sending everyone rushing for cover.

“I don’t think about it,” said builder Timothy Welehan, a New York native.

To protect diners at Ramadi from the mortars, the Seabees are finishing a fortified dining hall with earth and concrete walls and heavy wood beams supporting the earthen roof. For Chief Petty Officer Michael Romero, a steelworker, the project is personal. A 2004 attack on a U.S. dining facility in Mosul killed his friend Seabee Joel Baldwin.

In coming weeks, the scattered Seabees will converge on Al Taqaddum to work on the runway. In March, they will return to the United States, many to homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

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