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NEWS | May 18, 2015

Bridging the Mississippi: Army Reserve bridge companies raft Mississippi during WAREX

By Story by Staff Sgt. Debralee Best 412th Theater Engineer Command

FORT MCCOY, Wis. – The bay slides into the water, opening with a splash. The boats are waiting. Army Reserve Soldiers rush onto the bay, locking it open and connecting it to the boat. The bays are dropped one-by-one and pushed together, creating a raft.

These Soldiers are at Warrior Exercise 15-02 completing their final bridging operation on the Mississippi River in La Crosse, Wisconsin, a situational exercise to move materials down the river, May 14.

The 459th Engineer Company (Multi-role bridge), out of Bridgeport, West Virginia, led the operation, augmented by Soldiers from the 310th, out of Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia and 299th, out of Fort Belvoir, Virginia, Eng. Companies (Multi-role bridge). They built a six-piece float with four interior and two ramp improvised ribbon bridge bays, using five bridge erection boats to move the pieces into place.

“It went pretty well. We built the raft, put the vehicles on the raft, then we conducted a movement approximately three miles down the river,” said Sgt. 1st Class Martin Durst, 2nd bridge platoon sergeant, 459th Eng. Company. “Then we did a turn around and came back. We had no problems getting under bridges. We did go under one Rail Bridge, which was kind of neat because they opened the bridge for us. They were very cooperative.”

This was the fifth bridging operation the company performed during the exercise, but was a bit different since the others had been conducted on Big Sandy Lake at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin.

“This gives more realistic, real-world training rather than a man-made lake,” said Capt. Cindy West, commander, 459th Eng. Company.

The environment was not the only difference; the personnel were also rotated for this operation.

“This mission is not just first bridge or second bridge, the platoons are mixed, the leadership is mixed,” said West, a Minneapolis native. “The platoons didn’t have the opportunity to work together before so this is a culminating event for the company, but also a culminating event for the Soldiers as well as the leadership.”

While this was an opportunity for the platoons to work together, three companies working together as one was another aspect of teamwork on the water.

“At first I was kind of skeptical,” said West. “How’s it going to work with having Soldiers cross-leveled? Everyone has meshed really well together. We’ve taken good practices from them and provided our practices so each organization will be able to grow from what we’ve learned over the last three weeks.”

While West was skeptical, others saw this as normal operations.

“This is business as usual for us,” said Durst, from Philippi, West Virginia. “We all know each other, all the leadership knows each other. The 299th and the 459th are actually in the same battalion, so we’re sister companies. The 310th, we work with them on multiple occasions. Because we work together year after year, this is nothing new.”

West took command of the 459th six months ago so she found this to be a great opportunity to assess her Soldiers.

“It allows me to see the capabilities of my [noncommissioned officers], my platoon leaders. I get to see the company function as a whole,” she said.

For Durst, this was an opportunity to train his Soldiers to be vigilant.

“Stay alert, stay alive! I had one Soldier making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on security. That was day two. By day five, that was over … That’s the biggest take-away: as a platoon sergeant it’s hard to get them to train as they fight, to take it for real,” said Durst. “Being on security sucks, but it’s the only thing keeping the people building the bridge alive. I think when that started sinking in is when they finally started to realize: this could be the real deal.”

The training itself has also been invaluable, but not only to the bridge crews.

“We’ve been able to rotate the experienced with the inexperienced and find out the capabilities of our inexperienced Soldiers,” said West. “We’ve also been able to get our equipment operators some valuable training. We’ve had them with a horizontal company getting them some stick time. Our maintenance has been able to do some repairs. We’ve been self-sufficient, I can say.”

While the training has been valuable, Durst desires a more realistic environment and more training opportunities. 

“A couple other things I’d like to see is ranges opened up so we can augment our training when we’re not conducting convoy and mission operations,” said Durst. “I’d like to do some weapon live-fire, some H.E.A.T. [HMMWV Egress Assistance Trainer] training, I wouldn’t mind doing a little demo. We’re here for three weeks, it would just be nice to have the opportunity to move outside the FOB and do additional training that we never have the opportunity to do.”

When all is said and done, while Durst may want more training, he is proud of the work his Soldiers did during WAREX 15-02.

“In all reality I’m very happy, I have to say. Being in the Army Reserve is extremely difficult,” said Durst. “A lot of times we’re compared to active duty bridge companies, but I have say in all my years, 25 years in the Army, we’re just as good as active duty with two days a month training. That’s pretty good. That means I’ve got some sharp Soldiers.”