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Among Heroes, Part IV: The Seabees...

...need better PR agents.

At least that was my conclusion after attending the American Veterans Center Annual Conference panel of active-duty sailors entitled, "Seabees & Civil Engineer Corps:  Can-Do!"  Even with my interest in all things U.S. Navy, what I knew of the Seabees could fit in a thimble:  "They build, they fight, they set up bases before the regular combat troops arrive, and people in the know respect them."  That about covered it for me.

Fortunately, 2009 has been designated the Year of the Seabees and Combat Engineer Corps, and so a panel of distinguished combat engineers had been chosen by the AVC to educate me and my fellow attendees: CDR Paul J Odenthal, Asst. Chief of Staff for Logistics, 1st Naval Construction Division; LTJG Christopher Fairfield, currently the project manager overseeing the BRAC construction involved in combining Walter Reed and Bethesda; Senior Chief Builder Cloves Tennis, who had deployed in OIF I and OIF II, including completing 250 convoys in Al Anbar; CDR John J Adametz, commanding officer of U.S Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 7; and LT Ryan W. Thrun, recently returned from an IA (Individual Augmentee) billet in Afghanistan on a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT).

The session began somewhat inauspiciously with a powerpoint presentation, but it was brief, artfully-designed, and full of interesting pictures and graphics that did an excellent job of illustrating the breadth of the Seabees' activities and geographical reach--battalions are operating from Africa to Asia, the Middle East to South America and beyond.  Activities range from combat support, such as preparing bases for Marines in Afghanistan, to humanitarian missions building bridges in South America or schools in Africa and handling hurricane recovery here at home.

Seabees, by nature and by training, are fundamentally engineers with all the impressive geek-think that comes with it. For them, a picture of a bridge they have designed and constructed is something akin to a proud grandparent's picture of the latest grandchild, and they rattle off statistics and facts like talking computers. They have every right to be proud of their accomplishments, as their unofficial motto seems to be "we do the impossible."  And for all their geekiness, there's no lack of testosterone--The pictures in the presentation certainly were inspiring, and as the images of sailors hard at work among gigantic earthmovers, massive cranes and sections of prefabricated structures flashed on the screen, I could've sworn I heard Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor grunting from the back row.

LTJG Fairfield didn't speak much, but his resume was certainly wide-ranging for a 23-year-old.  He had just returned from Iraq with NMCB 3, which had been based in al Anbar, helping transition to Iraqi control at the provincial level.  That meant reducing the American "footprint" from 50 FOBs or COBs (Forward/Combat Operation Bases) to only 15.  It was a huge undertaking in terms of equipment consolidation, renovation/construction/deconstruction and transport.  When that was complete, he switched to being convoy commander and then convoy support as leader-planner of the "security element" for Third-Country National (non-Iraqi, non-coalition) supply missions.

Sr. Chief Tennis' sixteen years of service have so far included eight deployments (two to Iraq).  His first tour in Iraq included the invasion and post-invasion period of 2003 at an Air Force base in al Jabbar.  There his team built a bridge north of al Nazariyah to create a second supply line into Iraq.  "It was hard to do with chem suits on," he reported matter-of-factly, but in just four days they had spanned a 100-meter river. 

After Baghdad was secure, Tennis worked on civilian and government facilities with under he called "very few hostilities," though the living conditions were austure--constant convoys, MREs, etc.  He was then home for only nine months, then back to Iraq, this time on a convoy security team that ended up in Fallujah just before Phantom Fury (First Battle of Fallujah).  From there he moved on to COB/FOB work that included helping displaced persons.  In contrast to the relatively quiet first deployment, they suffered 15-20 mortars per day, sniper attacks, ambushes and IEDs.

Tennis' most recent deployment was as an IA to the Horn of Africa where he worked in quality control in Kenya.  The goal was to improve schoolhouses in underdeveloped areas by paying local contractors to do the work.  He was part of a civil affairs team, monitoring the contractors' work.  He said they had to watch them carefully, but with the right level of testing and monitoring, the contractors would do work that met the standards for the situation.

Commander Adametz detailed how his NMCB 7 was given orders to Iraq (al Anbar) last year in support of the Marines and Special Forces, only to be told after arrival to pack up and head to Afghanistan in preparation for the USMC push into the southern areas there.  It was an astonishing undertaking, as the mechanisms to bring equipment from the gulf into al Anbar--for which there had been months of preparation--were different than those required to reach landlocked Afghanistan.  CDR Adametz said it required more than 100 transport aircraft to carry their equipment, including 40 C-17s.  Some of the armored equipment was too large or heavy and had to have the armor removed or be disassembled and reassembled upon arrival.  Russian contractors and others were hired to take the rest that couldn't fit. Fortunately, as CDR Adametz reported, the Seabees received fantastic cooperation from the Danish, Brit and Canadian forces already on the ground in Afghanistan.  "Great teamwork," he said, adding that his sailors thoroughly enjoyed working alongside them.

LT Thrun discussed his recent experience as an IA to Afghanistan with a PRT unit comprised of both military and civilian personnel, such as representatives from USAID.  He was the civil engineer for the PRT, whose purpose was to work with local government entities to "extend their influence" in the Paktika providence.  He described Paktika as "very primitive" with mud huts and extensive deforestation.  His PRT facilitated 65 construction and road-building projects while there, working with local contractors.  They also conducted a number of small, quality-of-life/health projects, such as construction of new wells.  They built centers for adult training and education, schools and judicial/penal facilities, and installed safer generators to replace dangerous and unreliable older ones.

What LT Thrun called "contractor stability" in Paktika is a challenge.  He said good workers and good contractors escape the primitive and impoverished province as soon as possible, leaving behind contractors who can't produce quality work without a great deal of monitoring and checks by the PRT.  There were also cultural differences that required building relationships and trust in order to make anything productive happen on the construction front.  Of particular challenge was the issue of workplace safety.  LT Thrun wryly noted that some of contractors never quite understood the principle, as he displayed a picture of a hard-working laborer with a colorful hardhat balanced precariously atop his turban.  "Hardhats and turbans don't really go together," the lieutenant dead-panned.

Overal, LT Thrun was very positive about his experience working with the PRT.  He looked at the ROTC cadets and active-duty personnel throughout the auditorium and encouraged them to jump on the opportunity to work with a PRT if it ever arose, "You're never going to regret it," he enthused.

Each presenter on the panel had so much information to share and had spoken with such enthusiasm that there was almost no time left for questions.  I suspect a Q&A would've been fascinating, but considering who was next on the schedule, flexibility was not an option.

[Part I (WWII, racism and courage), Part II (General Petraeus--updated with pictures), Part III (Band of Brothers); Video excerpts from various sessions--including a clip of LT Thrun showing pictures--are posted at navytv.org.]

Update: Part V (Heroes of the Air)


11 Comments

My "adopted" daughter was/is a Seabee.  From Great Lakes at graduation to Honor Guard in DC to Seabee and she is now in the Reserves while in college.  I will email her about this article since she probably worked/works with some of the people mentioned.
Thank you.
HH
 

John Wayne made a movie about the Seabees.  What more PR do you need than that?

 
Good point, Tim.  But do you think anybody under 40 has seen it?  ;)
 
there is a popular saying among seabees..

a marine is a seabee on a light duty chit.
 
My father in law was with the 130th Seabees for the invasion and occupation of Okinawa in 1945.  He was then reassigned to the NMCB (Special) for Operations Deep Freeze I & II, which saw the construction of the frst runway on the Antarctic continent (rebuilt after a blizzard ruined the first effort) and the construction of the first science station there.  I have been reading a great deal about the Seabees the past month or two, and I am ever more impressed.  They are like little SF cleaner robots who follow behind the mayehm and clean-up and rebuild what's been broken.   For example, they started rebuilding Okinawa even before the fighting there had stopped, and the Seabees built the famous Kadena circle.  As for the South Pole, it has been continuously occupied by the U.S. since the Seabees showed up in 1956.  [The Deepfreeze story is pretty interesting all by itself to be honest --like most people don't know we built a portable nuclear reactor down there, but removed it in the 70s.]

Anyway, again, thanks for the write-ups.  They are great.
 
As I read this on the Seabees, I remember some of the things they built. It brings many things to mind. There was a sign at the old Bell Labs, it read something like this, "Here miracles are a daily thing, the impossible takes just a little bit longer."

@Allen, 18 NOV 2009,  9:43 AM
I'll say one thing for you, you really know how to stir the "chit".
 
Gotta love them Seabees. That ain't optional.
 
There is a sequence in one episode of "Victory at Sea" that documents how a unit of Seabees turned an expanse of jungle on Bougainville island into a working fighter-and-light-bomber airfield. 

In ten days. 

The Construction Battalions are like the Coast Guard: they could get ten times the credit they do, and still not be getting one-tenth the credit they deserve. 
 
Jan 71 Ca Mau ATSB Seabees held the west wall, then they replaced the generator flats and built two reinfirced bunkers. In two days.
 
According to at retired Seabee I worked with about fifteen years ago, the "real" unofficial Seabee motto is "First we dig 'em, then we die in 'em."  He told some interesting stories about Vietnam.  We agreed that we don't want interesting, boring is much safer.
 
My great uncle was Commodore W. O. Hiltabidle, CEC USN, Commander 5th Naval Construction Brigade.  I'm proud to bear his name (Orme).  Thanks for not forgetting these great folks!