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Guard’s bridging unit helps Fort Leonard Wood validate training site
Guard’s bridging unit helps Fort Leonard Wood validate training site

Missouri National Guardsmen in the 1438th Engineer Multi-Role Bridge Company prepare to land their assault float bridge during an exercise on the Osage River, east of Bagnell Dam.
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. (Sept. 25, 2009) — The Missouri National Guard is in the process of helping the Army decide if Osage River, east of Bagnell Dam, is an appropriate training venue for multi-role bridge units.

At the request of Fort Leonard Wood’s Directorate of Plans, Training and Mobilization office, the Guard’s 1438th Engineer Multi-Role Bridge Company, of Macon, and its Detachment 1, of Kirksville, tested the site Tuesday and Wednesday.

“The idea is to bring mobilizing bridge units down here so that they could do their collective training on fast water,” said Capt. Kelly Messerli, the 1438th’s company commander.

If approved, Fort Leonard Wood could start using the site as early as November.

The unit worked with AmerenUE, which operates Bagnell Dam, and was supported by several civilian agencies, including the Missouri Water Patrol.

The early analysis of the site seemed favorable.

“I think it’s going to be a fine training site,” Messerli said. “There are a few things that need to be improved, or at least the training unit needs to be aware of.
“The launch sites are good and need to be maintained. The water level is a big thing, too. If AmerenUE is not generating any water, then it’s going to be extremely difficult to cross anything because of the water level.”

Staff Sgt. Andrew Campbell, who was a boat operator during the exercise, didn’t expect the proposed training site would be up to par.

“I was skeptical about it at first,” he said. “I didn’t come down here on the initial recon of it, but when they came back and started talking about how low the water level was, I didn’t figure there would be enough water. They kept getting high-centered on some low spots in the water that they couldn’t see and that’s a hazard.”

“But once we coordinated with Ameren UE to raise the water level, I think it’s an adequate training site. It’s a real good training environment,” Campbell said.

Messerli, who lives in the Missouri city of California, said other advantages of the site include its proximity to Fort Leonard Wood and the dam upstream, which limits debris and prevents ice build-up in the winter.

“Those are factors on the Missouri River that are pretty treacherous,” he said. “You can always see a tree floating down the Missouri, but you don’t see how big it is until you are actually in there and it hits something.

“This is a much safer environment to train on, without a doubt,” Messerli said.

The exercise consisted of the assembling an assault float bridge that can be used to ferry equipment from one side of the river to the other.

The bridges are composed of pre-fabricated, floating bays. Each bridge has an on- and off-ramp bay, with two to four interior bays that provide 15 feet of width for cargo. A bridge composed of four bays can transport 70 tons of cargo, while a maximum six bays can carry up to 110 tons, Messerli said. The 70-ton weight limit is enough to support the Army’s heaviest piece of equipment, an M-1 Abrams tank.

To assemble the structures, it takes a build crew of 15 soldiers and three to four boats with three-person crews, Messerli said. Including soldiers in supporting roles, like mechanics, truck drivers and medics, 34 Guardsmen were involved in the exercise.

Once the bays are dropped into the water, they automatically expand into a flat deck. The boats are used to capture the bays and move them to a common area up stream so that the build crew can assemble the bridge. After the bridge is built, a member of the build crew takes over as raft commander and coordinates the boat operators to push the bridge on to shore, where the equipment can be loaded.

“As a boat operator, you have to know exactly what you’re doing out there,” said Campbell, who lives in Kirksville. “You want your most experienced people out there on the boats, because they always need to be thinking a step ahead and anticipating what that raft commander wants to do.”

For this exercise, the cargo was a 10-ton, eight-wheel drive Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck that was driven onto the bridge. The boats then pushed the bridge to the opposite shore, much like a tugboat would move a barge, where it was grounded to allow the truck to drive back on to shore.

Although the process seems complicated, it can be completed quickly and efficiently. At the 1438th’s two-week annual training on the Missouri River in May, the unit constructed a six-bay assault float bridge in 12 minutes, 15 seconds.

The soldiers in the 1438th found the training site to be an improvement from training on the Missouri River.

“I love it,” said Sgt. Adam Rulon, who was part of the build crew. “There is plenty of room to move the trucks around, you’ve got a little bit of a current and you’ve got a landing site on each side.”

On the Missouri, the unit had to launch and land on the same side of the river.

Although the Osage River has its advantages, it has hazards as well.

“There are a lot more obstacles that are being thrown at you,” added Spc. Mark Hetheriton, who also was on the build crew. “Not only are there sand bars, but you have to watch the level of the river going up and down — it’s a constant variable.

“But it’s a lot cleaner and you don’t have near as much debris coming at you. Being able to utilize both sides of the river makes a world of difference when it comes to training,” Hetheriton said.

The addition of this exercise to the training schedule late in the year will only benefit the unit, Messerli said.

“It’s always great to get our boats in the water,” he said. “We’re coming into the fall of the year and we’ll start winterizing our equipment. We always hope to get on the water again before spring, but we usually try to take these months to get our administrative stuff done.”

These citizen-soldiers, who took time off from their civilian job and volunteered to be a part of the exercise, were a mix of two platoons, so it was a good opportunity for them to work in different roles, with different people, Messerli said.

“I’ve got a mix-match of my whole company and it was kind of unique to see them work together, because they normally don’t,” he said. “We learned that there are a few things we need to standardize across the board to make both platoons talk the same language. That was actually the best part of it.”

Rulon, who lives in Liberty, said the extra training was valuable.

“We had more practice, more stick time and more time building,” he said.

Hetheriton, who lives in Monroe City, said the training gave him a chance to be better-rounded.

“They are constantly changing our positions around and everybody is getting a chance to learn the other positions,” Hetheriton said. “It makes us a lot more efficient as a whole.”

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