If you want to shock a weeknight staff meeting of reservists and full-timers, have your company commander lead with this: “First, some news, they’re closing our bridge company.”
Our local Army Reserve bridge company was my first unit and my first job as a platoon leader. I’d heard other Lieutenants complain about being shoe-horned into weird roles that did not fit the classic platoon leader job we all trained for. As luck would have it, the town I’d just moved to had a longstanding Army Reserve (USAR) bridge company that needed a platoon leader. I was thrilled to oblige.
After a couple of years, this company had become like family. My platoon sergeant and I worked hand-in-glove. I frustrated him while he mentored me and we ran the bridge platoon well. I have heard, and will forever hear his voice in the back of my head through most decisions I made. I learned much from the other NCOs and officers too. As a civil engineer, I was tickled to have my own giant steel Lego set! Plus, the icing on the cake, I learned that once our bridge was up, we bridge crewmen, military occupation specialty (MOS) 12C, would cross-train on combat engineer (MOS 12B) tasks like breaching obstacles and blowing things up! Heaven, indeed.
But now we were closing with no warning or plans for a replacement unit. Just gone. If we wanted to stay in the USAR, we’d all have to go find a new unit. Here in the rural Mountain West, that meant we’d all have to drive at least four hours to drill with another unit.
Being part of any organization that’s shuttering up just plain sucks. Whether it’s a business, department, school, church, or whatever, it is very depressing. First, you lose many of your best people right away. They have options and were maybe even pursuing something in the background already. Boom, they’re gone.
You make do planning all the administrative closing motions with whoever is left. Then your remaining crew starts bleeding away, with or without notice, during the coming weeks or months. You hope that, if you’re the last man standing, you get all your ducks in a row while you still have help. In my case, my ducks were inventory. No human should ever, ever have to inventory a fleet of dump trucks, engineer tools, and two entire Bailey Bridge sets by himself under threat of paying for any lost parts out-of-pocket. Ever.
Toward the end of all this came a glimmer of hope. A large USAR construction battalion 250 miles away toyed with the idea of setting up a new construction Detachment to provide a local option for us homesteading reservists. A small band of us set out to do all we could to help make the new unit a reality.
I coaxed and I recruited. A handful of us pushed, prodded, and were a pain in many Army butts to convince the brass to keep a unit here. I hit the road looking for training areas and construction missions. County public works departments generally liked the idea of free grading, road, and airfield construction. They did not like the idea of a project taking the better part of a year over 10 different weekends. They particularly bristled at the thought of 19-year-olds driving bulldozers around their project site and the occasional field training exercise with M-16s shooting blanks all over the place. I was invited to leave many offices with no returned calls. I may have bent the truth here and there to compromise and get training areas. But we eventually got a few projects set up.
We also needed a shop since our old lease was up. We wound up inheriting a refurbished facility from the Department of Energy which was going through its own property disposal process.
The DOE assured the DOD that this place was completely remediated and cleaned up. The fact that this building was where they used to process yellow cake uranium powder was just interesting historical trivia. It did make for fun jokes about us becoming our own glowsticks. We got a nice two-story building and gravel storage yard out of the deal that seemed a good fit. I told our folks to never mind the fact that the gravel yard turned our boots blue.
After a full year of “we will/we won’t” with Big Army, we finally got word that the construction Det was a go! We closed the bridge company for good and sent our bridge parts to the giant Indiana Jones warehouse. We stood up the Det with pomp, circumstance, and a new guidon flag. The new Detachment Commander saluted and shook the Battalion Commander’s hand as we were on our way. I still remember he was kind of a little guy with a weak handshake for an engineer Lieutenant Colonel. But we were all grateful they gave us a shot. I thought I had, again, encountered more luck than any reserve 1LT deserved by having my first command in my backyard.
We went on to build our projects around the area. One summer, we fell in with the larger battalion to train in South Korea. Our ranks grew, some soldiers returned, and new people showed up. We managed to do some great training and even get a few people promoted.
Officers just rent space at units and are expected to get new jobs regularly. Between the setup and nearly two years at the helm, it became time for me to move on. I passed the guidon to a friend of mine, Eric, who became the next Det Commander. I took a distant staff job.
9/11 hit and so much changed. Several friends went to Afghanistan right away. Then, in 2003, the U.S. decided that one war was going so well, we should run off and start another. From there, things got really busy all across the entire USAR.
My old Det was teed up to go to Iraq. My new engineer unit was bound for Afghanistan. They had their war and I had mine. But I still considered them “my” unit. I’m sure many former commanders can relate.
Army construction units in war zones tend to encounter things that explode. So, I visited and armed them with all of the latest land mine and unexploded ordinance training I could get my hands on. It was good to see and visit with all of them. I wished desperately to have more time with them, just to catch up, hear stories, and meet new faces. But we all had work to do, things move quickly when you’re “on the bubble.” We each left for our respective wars soon after that. As luck would have it, Eric had also moved on, to join my same small Afghan-bound engineer team. It’s a small Army.
The Iraq War hit our little Colorado community early. August 2023 marked 20 years from when a group from the Grand Junction Detachment of the 244th Engineer Battalion was ambushed in Iraq. One of my squad leaders, Staff Sergeant Mark Lawton, was quickly killed and several others were severely wounded. One survivor lost a leg, it was a bad day all around.
It was both surreal and horrifying to read about it days later, in Afghanistan, when I had a rare chance to get to an internet computer and pull up local news. Eric and I grieved together but apart. There was nothing we could do for “our” soldiers or their families from a world away in our other war. We each had our own recipe of memories and emotions from our time in command. Plus, our Afghan mission was proving sporty in its own ways.
Mark was a guy with several do-overs in his life. He started as a soldier, became a Marine, and then came back to the Army through our reserve unit. Along the way, he was a truck driver, cowboy, family man, and devout man of faith. He worked his tail off at every task. He was the squad leader I wish I could clone. Mark usually had that knowing, old soul look in his eye and a subtle grin under his mustache. He would always find a way to teach and mentor the soldiers around him as they worked. Being older and a vet of the first Gulf War, he felt duty-bound to go with “his” soldiers to Iraq.
I think of SSG Lawton often, usually when I’m with my family. He has a beautiful gravestone high in the mountains. His boys are my boys’ ages so they’re now all grown men. I savor the time and blessings I’ve had with my family and am grateful I’ve been here for them. I know Mark’s and far too many other families have not been so lucky. I’ve had those 20 years when so many others have not. I hope I’ve done some good with them.
I often wonder what if there had been no new Detachment in my hometown. When they closed our bridge company, what if we had not fought for a new unit? What if I had just shut up, thrown up my hands, gone my merry way, and let others do the same? I think about that, but then I think Mark would not have approved.
Not at all.
David is a father, husband, son, boss, writer, beekeeper, outdoorsman, occasional teacher, compulsive elk hunter, Afghanistan veteran, and living proof that anyone is trainable. He is a 1994 South Dakota School of Mines graduate. David spent 12 years in the Army and Army Reserve as an Engineer Officer before that career was cut short with Afghanistan injuries. He spent decades as a consulting civil engineer working in communities all around the American West and now oversees his firm’s engineering department. David continues to amaze both friend and foe being an engineer who can write a story.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.