Editor’s Note: In July of 2005, we interviewed Chris Gilbert, associate director for the Charlotte Research Institute at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, as he was looking to begin a year-long deployment in Iraq in the 505th Engineer Combat Battalion (Heavy) of the Army National Guard. In this piece, Captain Gilbert and Lt. Col. Russo report on their troop’s accomplishments this past year. Look for further updates on the 505th’s homecoming and transition back into civilian life from Mike Drummond, an embedded reporter with The Charlotte Observer.
A year after its citizen soldiers bid farewell to their families, and nearly 11 months into its deployment for Operation Iraqi Freedom, the North Carolina Army National Guard’s 505th Engineer Combat Battalion (Heavy) could look back on significant and lasting contributions throughout northern Iraq as the decisive engineer effort for the 101st Airborne Division’s Task Force Band of Brothers. Attached to the Fort Lewis-based 555th Combat Support Brigade (Maneuver Enhancement), the battalion completed the full spectrum of engineer missions across an area of operations nearly 300 kilometers in length during its year-long combat deployment.
Headquartered in Gastonia, North Carolina, the battalion draws from armories located in eleven different communities throughout central and western North Carolina. From the rolling foothills of North Wilkesboro, to the urban landscape of Charlotte, the battalion brought together soldiers from nearly every walk of life to answer the call to duty. After two months of intensive mobilization training at Fort Dix, New Jersey in early fall 2005, the 505th found itself conducting engineer operations in a combat zone for the first time in its 31-year history. Together, engineers representing four states helped shape the battlefield of northern Iraq, providing timely and reliable engineer support to Task Force Band of Brothers.
A legacy combat heavy battalion, the 505th deployed into the battlespace in October 2005 with three line companies, each in the traditional configuration of two general construction platoons and one horizontal equipment platoon. The Headquarters Support Company (HSC) provided an organic heavy equipment platoon to the fight as well as direct support maintenance capability. In addition to its normal complement of authorized equipment, the battalion received significant extra resources to accomplish its mission. Armored D9 dozers, the most intimidating engineer assets on the battlefield, provided the capability to push large amounts of dirt and support tactical operations in non-permissive areas. Crater repair teams utilized Huskies and Meerkats to sweep worksites for improvised explosive devices. A 40-ton crane provided the heavy lift capability needed to construct and emplace large concrete towers and barriers. Armored Heavy Equipment Transporters, normally reserved for transportation units, offered the muscle to haul equipment that exceeded the capability of M916 tractors. And a fleet of factory-armored M1114 HMMWV gun trucks escorted soldiers and equipment to and from jobsites and provided onsite security.
A vital resource from the start, the 505th Engineer Battalion jumped immediately into the thick of engineer operations, at times managing dozens of simultaneous missions. The battalion’s area of operations included virtually all of Northern Iraq, from Baqubah to Tall Afar, stretching to borders with Iran and Syria. To tackle this large battlespace, the battalion assigned geographic areas of operations for its three line companies, roughly mirroring the three key northern provinces of Diyala, Salah ah Din, and Nineveh; the utilities detachment provided basic engineer support in the eastern Kirkuk Province. Within each AO, the companies utilized a “hub and spoke” methodology, deploying teams, squads, and platoons to mission sites from a centrally located forward operating base. Out of operational necessity, the HSC equipment platoon, doctrinally conceived to provide heavy support to the line companies, operated as a stand-alone equipment platoon. Travel was a fact of life, as diverse missions and logistics support required constant movement across the battlefield. The battalion completed nearly 2,000 combat patrols and combat logistics patrols, covering thousands of miles of roads, and fought through over 70 combat engagements, primarily improvised explosive device attacks. Utilizing superior equipment and constantly evolving tactics, techniques, and procedures, the soldiers performed well in combat, completing every patrol and on several occasions detaining anti-Iraqi forces.
After 11 months on the ground, the battalion had completed nearly 350 engineer missions, averaging more than one per day. These missions ranged from basic utility repair to major construction projects with direct strategic impact for Iraq. Priorities for engineer effort included deliberate and emergency force protection, contingency response to assured mobility, base expansion projects, base closure or turnover to Iraqi Army units, and quality of life improvements. Missions supported both coalition forces and Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). The battalion also provided support to tactical operations.
Many missions required quick response to emergency situations. The battalion rapidly gained recognition as a responsive, flexible, and highly mobile engineer resource. In most cases, 505th elements reacted in hours or even minutes to emergency needs. These included clearing debris from blocked MSRs, conducting hasty bridge repairs, constructing defensive positions, recovering battle-damaged vehicles, and filling IED craters in roads that inhibited the movement of combat patrols.
All three line companies and the utilities detachment performed IED crater repair in their area of operations. From the streets of Samarra in the shadow of the Golden Mosque to remote stretches of rural highway, the crater repair teams labored tirelessly under constant threat of attack to assure coalition mobility. Working exclusively at night, these teams filled nearly 1000 craters, most a result of IED attacks, on over 1000 kilometers of main and alternate supply routes. Doing so ensured the routes remained trafficable and prevented enemy exploitation. The battalion drafted and utilized techniques to fill the craters with steel and concrete to ensure the repairs were unique and difficult or impossible to replicate or be tampered with. IED crater repair was arguably one of the most dangerous missions in Iraq, requiring soldiers to dismount and work for long periods of time in the enemy’s favorite engagement area.
The battalion’s first and most significant effort to support tactical operations involved the complete circumvallation of two towns. Working around the clock under the leadership of A/878, in early January 2006 soldiers and heavy equipment assets from every company in the battalion converged on two villages near the oil refinery city of Bayji to build a twelve kilometer, eight-foot high earthen berm in order to deter enemy activity within the villages. Within 72 hours of receipt of the mission, the plan for the As Siniyah berm had been finalized and blade assets from throughout northern Iraq were ready. The battalion’s determined equipment operators completed the berm in 48 hours, and four entry control points were constructed within the next 48 hours to control access to the towns at roadways. This great effort by North Carolina and Georgia Army National Guardsmen resulted in a significant reduction in the frequency and magnitude of direct and indirect fire attacks on US forces in the area.
The Castle Battalion’s largest off-base mission of the year, a project to erect force protection measures and basic life support at key oil pipeline canal crossing sites, held strategic importance for northern Iraq. The pipeline had been damaged at two canal crossings, disrupting the flow of oil from Kirkuk to Bayji refineries. In June 2006, the battalion converged again, this time near Hawijah under the leadership of B/505, to erect several kilometers of Hesco barriers and berm as well as construct guard towers and life support structures to enable contractors to safely repair the pipeline breaches. With support from Air Force engineers and an attached platoon from the active component’s 84th Engineer Battalion, this multi-component, multi-service task force worked day and night for two weeks in the summer heat, finishing the project several days ahead of schedule. Anti Iraqi Forces attacked the worksites relentlessly with small arms, RPGs, rockets and mortars; resupply convoys suffered IED attacks. The convoys got through, and the courageous soldiers of the 505th Engineer Combat Battalion pushed forward, completing the mission without a serious injury. The repair of these pipes enables 40 percent of Iraq’s crude oil production to once again flow directly to Bayji refineries, contributing to the nation’s wealth and ability to rebuild.
On large forward operating bases, the missions demanded expertise in virtually every type of engineer construction. The most extensive vertical projects involved constructing sets of wood-frame structures for office and living space. Dubbed “battalion sets,” the projects consisted typically of several 30x100, 20x50, or 44x88 buildings arranged in rows or around a common area. These projects, completed in Baqubah and Tikrit, provided superb project management training opportunities for platoon leaders, as well as exercising nearly all construction trades. Another recurring vertical mission was to design and build pole barn structures to support maintenance operations. Soldiers accustomed to placing field expedient concrete during crater repair missions honed their masonry skills on culverts, helipads, and building foundations. Horizontal assets built roads, airfields for unmanned aerial vehicles, force protection barriers, drainage systems, entry control points, parking lots and trenches to support electrical and communications infrastructure. On smaller patrol bases, soldiers focused primarily on force protection and living condition improvements. Evidence of the battalion’s positive impact on soldier quality of life can be seen all over the battlefield and will continue to make a difference for future rotations.
The 505th Engineer Combat Battalion also made significant contributions to support security and democracy in the new Iraq. Courageous engineers from C/505 worked day and night to harden and protect polling stations throughout Nineveh Province in preparation for Iraq’s first parliamentary elections. Squad and platoon-sized elements from C/505 reinforced, renovated, and improved the living conditions of Iraqi Police stations and Iraqi Army outposts in and around the large, sprawling city of Mosul. B/505 provided significant horizontal and vertical construction effort to facilitate coalition force timetables to turn over forward operating bases to Iraqi units throughout Diyala Province. Horizontal assets from every company constructed range complexes and upgraded existing ranges for the new Iraqi Army in places like Irbil and Samarra, in addition to building roads and improving drainage for existing Iraqi Army bases. A/878 made major improvements to the previously neglected Samarra berm, contributing to coalition and Iraqi force success in reducing this city’s volatility. 505th vertical engineers proudly renovated the Third Iraqi Army Division tactical operations center, providing a top-notch facility for tracking and managing operations.
The return of the 505th Engineer Battalion to North Carolina marks the end of the era of the legacy combat heavy battalion for the Army engineer community, as the unit’s leadership turns its attention toward the reorganization that has already transformed the Army. The 505th closes out this remarkable period in the history of the Engineer Regiment with pride and distinction. Providing the decisive engineer effort for the 101st Airborne Division, Task Force Band of Brothers meant continuous, fast-paced and full-spectrum engineer operations in combat over tens of thousands of square kilometers of battlespace, executed by the dedicated and courageous soldiers of the Castle Battalion. After reliably completing hundreds of missions in every conceivable situation, this legacy battalion claims as its own legacy to have accomplished more in one year than any other combat heavy battalion in the history of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Evidence to support this claim will exist in Iraq for years to come.
Captain Chris Gilbert is the S3 of the 505th Engineer Combat Battalion (Heavy), Gastonia, North Carolina. He holds a bachelor of science in architecture from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Lieutenant Colonel Matt Russo is the commander of the 505th Engineer Combat Battalion (Heavy). He holds a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering from the United States Military Academy and a master of business administration from the University of Delaware.