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NEWS | Aug. 5, 2022

Army Reserve engineers building bridge, berms and trail during annual training at Fort Drum

By Michael Strasser FORT DRUM, N.Y.

For many North Country residents, a day on the Black River may involve rafting, canoeing or fishing. But Army Reserve engineers have a different agenda on the water this month – building a bridge.

Soldiers with the West Virginia-based 463rd Engineer Battalion arrived at Fort Drum on July 31 for their annual two-week training. Part of the training plan involves two companies that are conducting bridge and rafting operations to transport Soldiers, vehicles and equipment across the Black River.

The bridge crew members from the 459th Engineer Company were on the river Aug. 3 using MK II bridge erection boats to push interlocking bay sections together to create floating rafts. Then the Soldiers take them apart, reset and rebuild several times to improve their proficiency.

“There are two types of crossings that we do,” said Staff Sgt. Jacob Whisler, platoon sergeant and bridge site noncommissioned officer in charge. “One is a full enclosure, which is a bridge that spans across a body of water. The other is rafting, where you build a smaller piece, load it up and then ferry it back and forth.”

The crews are practicing different configurations of rafting operations, culminating in a final exercise where both bridge companies will construct either a fully enclosed floating bridge or a “super raft,” which is eight connecting pieces. For the area they are operating in, a full enclosure would require 22 sections to safely cross the Black River.

“Each bay piece is approximately 22 feet wide, and there’s a formula we use to figure how many it would take for a full enclosure,” Whisler said. “Today we are working with five sections, and that can transport anything we currently have with us. A six-float, or six sections, can carry anything the Army has. We can put a fully-armored M1 Abrams on it and safely get it across. The less bay pieces you use, the less flotation and the less you can carry.”

Whisler said that the standard to build a five-bay float is 15 minutes and 18 minutes for a six-bay float. The clock starts the moment the first bay leaves the bridge transporter and hits the water and stops when it is fully constructed and ready to ferry. The recovery is a slower, more deliberate phase of the operation, mostly to prevent damaging the equipment but also to avoid injuries.

Whisler said that his unit is fortunate to have the Monongahela River near their home station where they are able to conduct field training exercises once or twice a year to practice these skills, and sometimes on drill weekends.

“But the training level is much higher during these annual training because we are capable of doing this every day,” he said. “It’s a perishable skill, and this is one of the more technical MOSs (military occupational specialties) that you can think of, so we take advantage of being on the water every chance we have.”

The way each boat maneuvers along the river to accomplish these tasks takes on the appearance of well-timed choreography. Even those drivers who lack experience seem to grasp the synchronicity of movement quickly, aided by seasoned crew members on board. Spc. Devon Vernon is an experienced boat operator who helps to train new Soldiers on how to run the MK II bridge erection boat.

“It’s not super complicated, but it can be easy to forget if you’re not doing this all the time,” he said. “So it’s important to get new Soldiers operating the boat constantly during this training so it becomes muscle memory. That makes it easier to do the job effectively and efficiently.”

Vernon said that attention to detail is critical with more than a dozen crew members working on the water with multiple boats moving at the same time.

“We are always looking out for each other,” he said. “We have to keep each other moving, because if one person is slacking then the job isn’t going to get done.”

Hours on the water in aluminum boats moving large aluminum floating bays in the heat and humidity can take its toll on the crew members. That’s where an Army medic, such as Spc. Hunter Richmond, puts his training to good use.

“The main thing I’m looking out for is dehydration and heat-type injuries,” he said. “We’re out here all day and the sun is beating down on us, so we are making sure people are drinking water and eating.”

Richmond said that he remains vigilant at all times for safety hazards while on the water.

“When it comes to annual training, it’s probably the busiest time of the year for me and probably for the other medics out here as well,” Richmond said. “Every day I have had something to do, whether it’s a minor sick call or bug bites – I treated someone who got poison ivy today. And heat exhaustion is a prevalent concern that we have to look out for and make sure people aren’t being lax about it.”

First Lt. Louis Hatcher said that the 459th is a multi-role bridge company capable of building several types of bridges, and it requires bridge crews to be proficient in a variety of technical skills.

“The overall goal here is to increase our capabilities as a company,” said Hatcher, company commander. “That means these Soldiers have to be really honed in on their craft. It’s specialized equipment requiring specialized personnel, and a lot of training that can only happen out here in the water.”

While these companies were occupied with moving cargo across the water, other companies were moving massive amounts of earth to build berms on the training range and a trail section inside the cantonment area.

A group of about 10 heavy equipment operators from the 336th Engineer Company is tasked with clearing a 600-yard trail of debris and then building it back up. After laying a protective mesh to prevent an overgrowth of weeds, the engineers will pour gravel on top. As a horizontal engineer unit, their particular expertise is moving earth – making roads and pathways, and erecting berms of all sizes using an array of heavy equipment.

“For this project, we use a skid-steer loader, a Bobcat, a grader, bulldozer and roller,” said Staff Sgt. Keith Bremmer, section sergeant with 3rd Platoon, 336th Engineer Company.

Bremmer said that since they only get one of these projects once a year, they wanted to get the less experienced Soldiers using the equipment as often as possible.

“It’s very important for the Soldiers to get this training, because we don’t have any place to do this during drill weekends,” he said. “They don’t get the chance to operate any of this equipment but the one time every year, so having a project like this where they can practice their skills is a big deal for them.”