Busy Seabees build for Babylon

3 May 2003 |

AL HILLAH, Camp Babylon, Iraq -- Wielding hammers and saws, Navy construction crews are trying to bring a little comfort to the Marines who helped bring freedom to the people of Iraq.

About 120 Kansas City, Mo.-based reservists from the 15th Naval Mobile Construction Battalion, Air Detachment, are making one of Saddam Hussein's former palace complexes near the ancient ruins of Babylon livable for the men and women of the First Marine Expeditionary Force based there.

With only a few days head start before the I MEF moved its combat headquarters here from its former base in the desert, these Seabees began working frantically to put the palace and surrounding buildings in order after looters pillaged the complex.  

"The locals really tore up this place," said Navy Lt. Jeff G. Gerken, the officer in charge of this Seabees team.  "When we got here all the fixtures were either damaged or missing."

When loyalists of Saddam Hussein's Baath party abandoned the complex, looters ravaged the grounds.  Furniture was taken, toilets, sinks, and electrical outlets were stolen or destroyed.  When lead elements of the I MEF arrived, the only thing left intact inside the palace were the walls, ceilings and debris-strewn marble floors.

After a month of fighting in the desert, the Marines were looking to set up operations in a little more hospitable environment than the dusty camp where they had worked previously.

"Taking care of the Marine's quality of life is what our main job is while we are here," said Gerken, an Omaha Neb. resident and president of a traffic engineering consulting firm at home.   "We just want to bring life here a little closer to civilization."

Life for fighting Marines is not glamorous.  During the month-long battles in the deserts of Iraq, a Marines bathtub came from a canteen and his toilet was any hastily dug hole.

"They need to leave the war fighting behind and come inside and decompress," Gerken said. 
The projects the reservists are completing include restoring electricity and plumbing to some of the buildings around the complex.

"The wish list the Marines have just keeps getting bigger and bigger everyday," said Chief Petty Officer Mark K. Lowe, who helps manage the projects that the Seabees tackle.

Lowe points proudly to the construction area where his Seabees are assembling certain creature comforts for the Marines. Sounds of hammers and power saws echo off the buildings as he shows-off more than a dozen wooden bathroom.

Since most of the Marines won't see indoor plumbing until they return home, the Seabees are crafting simple conveniences to make personal hygiene easier. In the lumberyard, carpenters are building shaving tables, benches for field showers and tripods to hold large canvass water bags.

Aside from the physical needs, the Seabees are also looking out for the Marines' spiritual needs.

"On Saturday afternoon, I asked them if they could build an altar and a lectern for us to use for chapel services on Sunday, and the next morning it was there," said Navy Captain John S. Gwudz, a Roman Catholic chaplain, who has been with the I MEF for the past two years.

Using scrap wood from the field bathrooms the carpenters crafted a lectern with an ornamental cross on the front.

"There is one word the Seabees need to add to their vocabulary," Gwudz said. " That word is no."

"We have some real master craftsman with us," said Gerken. "We try and match the talents of our guys to the needs of the mission."

Gwudz adds that he plans on taking his newly crafted artifacts with him when I MEF leaves Iraq.  "This will be a special reminder of our mission here."

Because of the big workload, all the Seabees no matter what their specialty, are pitching-in and helping out.  

"That is one of the advantages of the reserves," said Lowe, a resident of Belleview, Neb.  "These guys bring to the unit talents and skills from their civilian jobs."

Those civilian skills paid off for the I MEF when the Seabees were tasked to build a helipad in a powdery dirt clearing.

"We have a lot of expertise with us," said Gerken.  As he walks across a field to the helipad, little clouds of dust puff up around his feet. "This is not at all safe for the pilots."

Working around the clock for three days straight the Seabees used sand, gravel and water to turn a little patch of desert into a quality airfield.

"We some have a road builders and expert heavy equipment operators with us," said Gerken.  "We had to improvise and use the resources that were here to get the job done."

While the Seabees garner a lot of satisfaction from aiding the Marines' comfort, once the work at the combat headquarters slows down, they will refocus their sights on helping the Iraqi people restore their country.

"We have already sent some electricians out to assess power plants in the area," said Gerken.  "If they want us to paint schools or pass out food, we are ready to do it."