Ten years ago on March 19, 2003, I was Engineering News-Record’s embedded reporter with a U.S. Army combat engineer brigade camped in the Kuwaiti desert. It was preparing to deliver engineering support for the Army’s invasion of Iraq.
The unit, the 130th Engineer Brigade, under the army's V Corps and based in Hanau, Germany, had the lead role in planning and organizing the engineering support for the Third Army/Coalition Forces Land Component Command's assault across the demilitarized zone from Kuwait.
Its young colonel, Gregg Martin, was performing the role of lead engineering project manager for an enormous joint venture that had programmed, vectored in and staged in the desert tens of thousands of active duty troops and reservists and thousands of pieces of equipment. The army was at that moment poised to launch the invasion behind D-9 bulldozers all along the frontier, carving 18 lanes through the tank traps and electrified fences of the Iraqi border.
When the command was given, and as night began to fall, the engineers finished cutting the fences and filling the tank traps, covered by infantry gunners and tanks behind them as missiles began to arch overhead, diving deep into Iraq “to shape the battlefield.”
The combat engineers advanced with the lead elements of the invasion to de-mine roads and bridges and rapidly repair or create, if necessary, routes, airfields and river crossings on the critical path of the battle plan. They secured, cleared, salvaged and restored sabotaged infrastructure—under fire if necessary—at the leading edge of the fight.
But after supporting assaut mobility, “force protection,“ was the unit's next priority. That meant the combat heavies -- with their heavy equipment -- traveled with the attack to download dozers and throw up defensive berms and other protections wherever soldiers paused to rest, regroup or take possession of facilities or territory.
I witnessed the combat engineers of the 130th, and later the 3rd Infantry Division and other engineer units I spent time with, as they drove forward into a world of danger with alert, well-trained care, but with ultimate disregard for personal risks of anything that stood between them and the accomplishment of their missions. The people I was with impressed me, across the board, with their courage, focus, honor, responsibility and their leadership. As a group, they truly were select.
And as the fighting ebbed the engineers immediately swung to infrastructure restoration on behalf of the local population wherever they could, organizing garbage removal, repairing sewer systems, restoring water service and repairing schools and soccer fields, often without any specific direction from above. Yes, there was a vacuum in post-invasion planning from the top, and there was looting as long-deprived segments of the population sought to claim resources, but there was a lot of appreciation expressed by Iraqis at the time for the community restoration efforts of the engineers on the ground as well.
For all of today’s rear-view mirror analysis, recriminations and second guessing of the causes and outcomes of the invasion of Iraq 10 years ago, the engineer support for the invasion of Iraq still stands as one mission that was well planned and accomplished.
The 10th anniversary of the invasion has very properly returned sharply critical attention to the leaders who either drove the invasion as a political decision, acquiesced to it through inaction, or ineffectually opposed it. And in that storm of analysis, the accusations fly like of bullets in a firefight -- except in this fight, nobody is maimed, and nobody dies.
In all the noise today about the lessons of Iraq, let us pause to pay a little attention to the real fight performed by the active and reserve duty soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who have put their lives on the line to perform as directed by our leaders, as well as to the host of civilians who support them.
The men and women in our armed services are volunteers. They don’t enlist to make policy, choose their battles or steer foreign policy debate. They enlist and train to deliver force on behalf of our country when directed to, and to accomplish the tasks they are given.
They have been doing that with great courage and determination since 9/11 in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere at incredible cost to themselves, their families and communities, at the behest of leaders who derive their authority from us.
Let’s not let their honest service be thrown under the bus of political recriminations. They have fought wars at the direction of leaders whom we, as a nation, have elected and re-elected to pursue this course for more than a decade.
If we find the course disagreeable, we have our collective selves, as a nation, to blame. But we should thank our stars that the USA has such armed services as these.