School teaches to destroy and build

29 Oct 2002 | Lance Cpl. Shawn C. Rhodes

In the beginning days of the Gulf War, Marines faced many of the same conditions they encountered almost a half-century before on Iwo Jima.  Iraqis, like the Japanese, had months to prepare for an invasion.  Although the Marines did not have to deal with a complex maze of bunkers, their opponent was no less formidable - more than 500 meters worth of land mines.  These mines served as a major obstacle keeping U.S. forces from plunging into Iraq and disabling its military forces. 

Marine Corps combat engineers were called into action once again, just as they have been countless times since the Revolutionary War.

"We sent out a bunch of line charges and had a hole through the minefield in no time.  We moved some infantry units and tanks through the breach and made so much ground so quickly that we were in danger of running out of fuel," said Gunnery Sgt. John K. Burkett, a Combat Engineer Instructional School academic analyst.

Marine engineers who served in the Gulf War and those on the front line today learned their skills at the school here. 

The combat engineer school is a four-week course, teaching Marines vertical and horizontal construction, deconstruction and demolition basics.

Twenty-seven instructors, all staff noncommissioned officers and most with combat experience, teach the students much of what they will need to aid the Fleet Marine Force in its missions.

Burkett said combat engineers are at the very point of the spear in the Marine Corps.  He explained that when a reconnaissance unit or infantry unit spots a minefield or some other obstacle which prevents it from moving forward, engineers are called to clear the obstacle.

"When an infantry unit comes across a minefield, the field can halt the mission like a brick wall.  Engineers clear obstacles and are indispensable to the infantry," said Burkett.

The Seminole, Fla., native said engineers are equally important in a garrison role.

"When a commander wants to set up a command post, he calls up the engineers to scout out the area, make sure it is defendable, and can be moved in quickly and packed up just as fast.  Engineers are the Marines who get the training to do that and make sure non-infantry personnel are safe as well," claimed Burkett.

Students today know how varied their missions may be in the field.

"We learn so much here, it's like something new every day.  I know our missions out there are going to range from building to destroying and everything in between. We're trained for it all," said Pfc. Patrick J. Tuohy, a student and Westfield, N.J., native.  "Even though I'm just learning about what engineers do, I can already see the Marine Corps can't operate without them."

There are many students like Tuohy who are just learning about the role engineers play in the Marine Corps. However, there are those who know exactly what their role is from their own experience. 

"It all breaks down to this - if you can't move in combat, you're dead," said Gunnery Sgt. John J. Wood, a Demolition Course instructor and Gulf War veteran from Allegheny, Pa.  

"In the Gulf (engineers) knew we were a vital element if the mission was to succeed," explained the Bronze Star recipient. "Finding mines and destroying enemy assets are just one part of what engineers do.  Setting up bridges so vehicles can move and protecting all the Marines in the rear by building defenses are all in a day's work for the combat engineers."