I

During the war, the Navy deployed the unit to Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides; Iroquois Point, Hawaii; Marianas Islands and Okinawa. Then, as now, the median age of personnel in all the U.S. armed forces was 19 to 20. Not the Seabees, which were stocked with skilled tradespeople. Their median age was 38. Their mission: to act as the Navy's construction work force. NMCB-7 spent the war in the Pacific, constructing base camps, runways, hospitals and island infrastructure for advancing U.S. Marine forces. Subsequent missions involved deployments to Korea, Japan and the Atlantic and Pacific theaters.

U.S. and Kuwaiti flags fly at base camp.

The Seebee credo is "We Build, We Fight." NMCB-7's activities since World War II illustrate this duality. The emphasis was on military work at Guantanamo Bay during the 1961 Cuban missile crisis and later in Vietnam. The unit later turned to peacetime building efforts as well, by constructing a Loran station on Guam, restoring roads and sanitation services in the Caribbean after Hurricane Georges, supplying humanitarian assistance in Haiti after the Duvalier regime fell and providing construction support for the Paralympic Games in Atlanta.

These days NMCB-7, one of eight Seebee battalions under commission, is again in the fight. It is in Kuwait, as part of the First Marine Expeditionary Force's engineering complement–the MEG, or Marine Engineer Group. The MEG is supplying engineering and construction support to coalition troops pushing into Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein. NMCB-7's Executive Officer, Cmdr. Chris Lacaria says that although he won't receive specific directives until he's in the theater of operations, the unit's role will possibly include rapid road and runway repair and quarters construction for refugees and/or prisoners of war.

At Seven's invitation, I joined the final flight from the homeport to join the majority of the battalion already in the Mideast. What was to be a day or two in Gulfport stretched to a week as the coalition's command grappled with an extremely fluid situation in the field. Turkey's refusal to permit staging there for the U.S. Army's Fourth Infantry Division to open a northern front and push south to Baghdad complicated matters. The coalition diverted material from the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal and into Kuwait. Iraqi-laid mines in the Persian Gulf also backed up ships bringing food and other humanitarian supplies into the Iraqi port of Um Qsar. As British, Australian and American forces pushed north to within 50 miles of Baghdad in one of the fastest advances in the history of warfare, Iraqi irregulars and the special forces known as Saddam's fedayeen harassed the coalition's extended supply lines in southern Iraq near Basra. The land and sea bottlenecks in the theater's southern supply line effectively kept the final complement of NMCB-7 on the ground in Gulfport–one unit, a few hundred coalition forces of tens of thousands scheduled to flow into the area over the next month.

The delay gave the stateside Seabees time to finalize arrangements. Finding time between more important tasks, Ensign Vincent Palrose took me to requisition field gear. Web gear carries the minimal survival gear that Seabees must wear or have at hand 24-7 in Kuwait and Iraq: two canteens and a holstered gas mask. Two pieces of Kevlar are next: the helmet, called a "brain pan," and body-armor vest. A desert camo backpack carries the Mission Objective Protective Posture (MOPP) suit: lightweight fabric pants and tops lined with charcoal, two sets of overshoes and gloves. They're designed to protect against "sliming," or chemical, biological and radioactive exposure. Three metallic charcoal filter canisters that attach to the gas mask complete the kit. I managed to squeeze in minimal CBR training, which should enable me to don my mask within nine seconds, with canisters properly affixed. "You don't want to breathe bad juju," says Ens. Palrose.

The laconic ensign, a 25-year-old native of Las Vegas, was in Officer Candidate School at Pensacola, Fla., when 9/11 hit. "The attitude in training changed overnight," he says. "Now everybody knew we had a job to do. A big job." The event ultimately disrupted Palrose's personal plans–he and his fiancée planned to marry in April in Vegas. When deployment orders came down, they had a Baptist minister perform a ceremony in Gulfport on March 16. The plan is for her to head for Vegas to meet his family for the first time and have a formal ceremony upon his return. She's ambivalent at best about the war, she says, but "he's in the military and when the time comes to go, they go. That's just the way it is. I just pray to God that he'll send my husband back home to me safe and sound. And soon."

Final muster in Gulfport is March 27 after dinner on a macadam parking lot called, for some unknown reason, the grinder. There is an atmosphere of equal parts tension and anticipation, like being backstage before the curtain goes up on opening night.

This is a drama, but there are comic moments. Chief Petty Officer Bill Koloski, is livid. Koloski, a New York City-born lifer, is one of the people the younger officers depend upon to impose order and training among the young enlisted ranks. He does so ably, employing profanity, pride and proficiency as needed. He has a Vin Diesel haircut and a Bruce Willis sense of humor. But failing to toe the line, in matters large or small, instantly causes Mount K to erupt. On this night on the grinder, he is livid. A Seabee has forgotten to download information onto a disc to deliver to the company commander in Kuwait. "You forgot the friggin' G drive!" he screams. "You are going to go get that friggin' drive and bring it NOW and be back here in 10 minutes or you are going to be on every friggin' s**t detail I can find in Kuwait for as long as we are there or until I forget your name. Do you understand? Now go. NOW!" As the young man bolts back to headquarters, he turns to one of the younger officers, who doubtless would have borne the real penalty for the oversight. "Sir, can you imagine what the CO would say if we had shown up without the friggin' G drive?" he says softly. The unspoken message: I've got your back. Just making sure you know.

A shore patrol detachment shows up to take one young Seabee to say goodbye to his wife, who's having a panic attack. One of the chief petty officers states the case succinctly: "Hug her, hold her, try to calm her down. Make sure she knows that if she needs to go to the hospital for medical attention, we'll see that she gets there. But make sure she also knows that you're going to be on that plane."

On March 27, we are locked down in an airplane hangar about 9 p.m., waiting for a 4:30 a.m. flight. The flight plan is eight hours of air time to Amsterdam, deplaning for two hours in a secured area in Schiphol Airport, then reboarding with a new crew for the final seven-hour, 15-minute leg to Kuwait City. We leave in the dark and fly east against the sun, so by the time we land in Amsterdam, we've gained seven hours and the sun is going down. We gain two more hours on the final leg and land at 7:52 a.m., completing a long night's journey into day.

The plane is a Northwest 747-200, with a civilian crew. Two of the pilots are veterans. Mark Ness, 51, flew cargo planes for the Navy; and Bob Lewis, 49, flew F-15s for the Air Force. Northwest participates in a government program called the Civilian Reserve Air Fleet. Under CRAF, the Pentagon requisitions commercial airliners to move troops during wartime. The airlines are reimbursed, the flight crew says, but Northwest is losing money on the deal. "This plane is normally in the Pacific trade, which is one of the few moneymaking routes we have these days," says Ness. But on the approach to Amsterdam, the captain keys the intercom and tells his 310 passengers: "Ladies and gentlemen, it's been an honor and a privilege to serve you. We wish you Godspeed on your mission. We and the rest of the country are proud of what you're doing for the people of Iraq. Stay safe and come home soon."

Military engineers gird up for Kuwait entry.

The captain who takes over in Amsterdam shortly after takeoff reveals his own opinion of the diplomatic breakdown in the weeks before the war began: "We are about 40 minutes from Paris, in the land of the Big Surrender." Later, when he finds out that a reporter is aboard, he asks to remain anonymous.

From Paris, we head southwest toward Rome. Crossing the Mediterranean, we veer south, leaving Alexandria and Cairo to port. Deep over central Egypt, we bank to the east, crossing the Red Sea into Saudi Arabian air space, leaving the Muslim holy city of Mecca to starboard and heading toward Riyadh. We're giving Iraqi air space a wide berth, even though the 100 or so planes in the Iraqi air force have remained on the ground during the conflict.

Once past Riyadh, we head northeast toward the Saudi town of Al Damman. It is on the Persian Gulf, a few miles north of Gen. Tommy Franks' allied headquarters at Doha, Qtar. We head up the coastline and, after taking a slight jog to burn 10 minutes at the control tower's request, we glide into Kuwait City's airport.

Along with the Kuwaiti Airlines fleet, at least a dozen U.S. planes–a mix of CRAF passenger planes and military cargo carriers–-are lined up waiting to discharge troops or materiel or to refuel for departure. I'm told that the U.S. built the control tower during Operation Desert Storm.

We don flak jackets, web gear and helmets, wait for a couple of hours, then board Kuwaiti school bus-style transports that take us to a staging area. The seats are hard, crowded with soldiers wearing helmets, web gear, camouflage CBR packs and carrying their weapons. Blue security curtains shield us from view. The jampacked vehicle's air conditioning system strains to keep the temperature down to a low simmer.

After a half-hour ride we disembark, don our chem-bio MOPP tops and pants, then reclaim our checked gear. During the wait on the tarmac, I strike up a conversation with an activated reservist, E-6 David Kripps, 40, from New Haven, Conn. "Three weeks ago, I was working as a facilities engineer for Winchester Arms, back home. I got the call-up." He's slated to join the fleet hospital as a heating, ventilation and air conditioning specialist.

ENR editor Wright mingles with Seabees.

Then some of the contingent are sent to a camp near a Kuwaiti military airfield; the rest of us are off for a two-hour drive to Camp Castle. After the long flight and seemingly endless wait to depart for this final ground leg, most of the people on my bus are asleep. The main highways, limited-access thoroughfares with four lanes divided by a median, are sparsely traveled this Saturday afternoon. Traffic seems to be an equal mix of Kuwaiti civilian vehicles and coalition military gear: Humvees, armored personnel carriers, tanks and construction equipment on flatbeds, water and fuel tankers and two-and-a-half-tonners and five-ton tandems. There are checkpoints every few intervals, manned by Kuwaitis. We are waived through, but civilians must display identification. Later I'm told that intelligence reports indicate that the fedayeen will try to infiltrate, blend in with the Kuwaiti population and detonate suicide car bombs or perform other acts of sabotage.

Eventually we leave the four-lane for a two-lane secondary road. The terrain is desolate– waterless, flat and sandy, with minimal scrub vegetation. We pass a few herds of goats and their tenders. In places, half the road is covered by large sand drifts, remnants of a major sandstorm several weeks (www.enr.com/news/Front2003/030310.asp) As we approach Camp Castle, olive drab dozers and road graders clear drifts from the road. Rollers are flattening the shoulders in places. We squeeze past a line of empty flatbeds, apparently owned by contracted civilians who delivered supplies to the tent camp. I note that most of the tractors bear the Mercedes logo on their grill. A few others are Renaults. The German and French governments are keeping their military at home, but their automotive fleets are represented.

Inside the camp, we disembark and get our check-out gear. I am assigned a cot in a headquarters company tent. I find it, drop my laptop and CBR pack and am preparing to get my backpack and Alice pack. As I come out of the tent, two Marines approach and ask if I'm Andrew Wright from ENR. Guilty as charged, I say. "You're to come with us," says Lt. Aaron Taylor. "We've got a berth for you at the MEG at Camp Commando. We have to run an errand down to Jabair on an errand, then we'll head on up. We have space for you in one of our SUVs. Get your stuff."

The change in plans makes a long day a few hours longer and suddenly snaps the bonds I've forged in a week with NMCB-7, but I regard it as my first battlefield promotion. The MEG is the Marine Engineer Group, assigned to the First Marine Expeditionary Force. Tracing its roots to Operation Desert Storm, it aims to coordinate battlefield engineering and synchronize efforts among the Navy, Marine Corps and Army units. MEG consists of several light, fully integrates regimental task forces. Current units include the First Naval Construction Division (Seebees), the Marine Augment Detachment 88835, the USMC 4th Combat Engineer Battalion and the U.S. Army 265th Engineer Group and Georgia National Guard.

At Camp Commando, orders flow from Rear Admiral Chuck Kubic, commander of the First Naval Construction Division. He has a long list of impressive credentials, but the one that may interest ENR readers most is that he graduated at the head of his class at Lehigh University in 1972 with a BS in civil engineering. MEG coordinates a number of support activities: airfield construction and repair, road upgrade and maintenance, troop beddown, specialized bridging, force protection and the capability to drawn on expertise from rear area engineers. MEG prides itself on being flexible enough to take on specialized battlefield missions with speed. The operation is mobile, agile and, if necessary, hostile.

The trip to Jabair takes several hours, but gives me a chance to get a first-hand report from two Marines who've been in the theater during the ramp-up to war: Warrant Officer Don Dailey, a native of Wyoming and 18-year veteran of numerous deployments, including action in Desert Storm and Mogadishu, Somalia; and Lance Corporal Waters, a young man from Baltimore on his first term of enlistment. Dailey, an anti-terrorism and chemical, biological and radiation specialist, is convinced that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. The question is whether they will be used. His training tells him to assume the worst and hope it doesn't happen. Lance Cpl. Waters tells me about the Scud missile early in the war that landed about 200 yards outside the camp perimeter. "It got us in our MOPP gear and into the bunkers pretty damn quick," he says.

Dailey says the trajectory was too flat to enable Patriot missiles to engage and destroy the Scud. The good news, I'm told later, is that the missile was equipped with high explosives and not a chemical-biological payload.

We finally reach the camp around 10 p.m. Dailey takes me to the chow hall for a late meal, then finds me a temporary berth in his tent. The canvas tent, an A-frame set on a plywood base about 12 x 24 ft, is set up for about eight officers. I grab the bunk of a lieutenant who is up north for several days on a mission. I unroll my sleeping bag. About midnight on a day that began nine time zones and 59 clock-hours earlier, I finally fall asleep.

(Photos by Andrew G. Wright for ENR)

ENR Managing Senior Editor Andrew G. Wright is in Baghdad
with the Engineer Brigade of U.S. Army's Third Infantry
Division.

N KUWAIT, WITH THE MARINE ENGINEER GROUP — We're definitely not in Kansas anymore. About 15 camels saunter lazily across the horizon several hundred yards from Camp Castle's perimeter concertina wire. The camp in central Kuwait is the operations base for Navy Mobile Construction Battalion Seven. Based in Gulfport, Miss., NMCB-7 is one of the original 10 Seabee battalions commissioned by Rear Admiral Ben Moreell during World War II.