CAMP RIPLEY, Minn. –
“Tanks can’t swim,” said 1st Lt. Justin Kiel, executive officer for the Army Reserve 652nd Engineer Company, 397th Engineer Battalion.
That’s where Kiel and his Soldiers come into play. They are bridge builder crewmembers who construct bridges and rafts to carry Soldiers and vehicles across bodies of water, rough terrain, and other barriers they may encounter in the field.
For their annual training, the 652nd traveled from their home station in Hammond, Wisconsin, to Camp Ripley where they constructed a multi-bay floating raft, called an improved ribbon bridge (IRB), and transported an M2 Bradley and tens of Soldiers across the Mississippi River.
“We constructed a seven-bay flow,” said Kiel. “We unloaded five bridge components and two ramps into the water.”
With each bridge component weighing nearly 13,000 pounds, the 652nd used four specially designed boats to maneuver and connect the components together.
“Learning how to operate the boat is definitely the hardest,” said Kiel. “If you’re not proficient, the bay is going to get away from you, and it’s going to move down the river.”
Advanced individual training (AIT) for bridge builder crewmembers is only about three weeks long, so Annual Training provides junior-enlisted Soldiers with hands-on time they often haven’t experienced before.
“[AIT] gives Soldiers the idea of what bridging operations is, but it doesn’t give them the technical abilities yet,” said Kiel.
Two weeks of Annual Training allows time for the unit’s non-commissioned officers to train each individual Soldier.
“It sounds kind of crazy that we have 18-year-olds and 22-year-olds manning equipment that’s the size of tanks roughly,” said Kiel, referring to the 13,000 pound bridge components. “But not only are they able to assemble equipment of that mass, they can also then [load equipment] that’s heavier than the bridge and maneuver it across a [river] 150 meters [wide].”
While some Soldiers maneuver the boats, others unload onto the floating bridge components and use ropes, rods, and other tools to link the components together.
Assembling the bridge components is intense and laborious work. For a seven-component bridge, the standard assembly time is 23 minutes. The 652nd finished in 17 minutes, 18 seconds.
“We’ve got [Soldiers] running around the bridge constantly [connecting components],” said Kiel. “So when they complete it, it’s a huge sense of fulfillment. They get to take off their [helmets] and see their completed work.”
“That’s the great thing about the IRB,” said Kiel. “You didn’t have a bridge to start, and now you have a bridge when you finish.”