Marines tackle border road construction project
By Sgt. Paul Peterson
| | May 07, 2014
EL CENTRO, Calif. --
It’s a construction mission far removed from the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan. They’ve done those too, of course, but spring brought a welcome change of pace for the 40 Marines and sailors with the 8th Engineer Support Battalion, 2nd Marine Logistics Group in El Centro, Calif. This time, the Marines threw their toil and sweat into a project much closer to home.
The detachment arrived in March to kick off a 54-day road construction project near the U.S.-Mexico border. Approximately 1,800 feet of road and five precision-engineered culverts lay ahead of them as the Marines settled into the venture.
“In typical Marine Corps fashion, they said, ‘Here’s what we want as the end state. You figure out how to get there,’” said 1st Lt. Joseph Comiskey, the mission commander for the detachment.
“We’re building [the road] for the Border Patrol so they can better protect the area,” said Comiskey, a Washington, D.C. native. “The roads have been beaten down … They haven’t been able to drive past this section the Marines have built over the last three weeks since around 1976. That was the last time vehicular traffic went across these roads.”
In collaboration with Joint Task Force North, based out of Fort Bliss, Texas, the Marines volunteered their labor and skills to expand the tactical mobility of the area’s Border Patrol and open up the route to more than just all-terrain vehicles.
JTF-North, a joint service command comprised of active duty and reserve personnel from across the Department of Defense, supports federal law enforcement agencies in counterdrug operations.
For the Marines and sailors on the ground, the work was not only a unique opportunity to apply their craft in a domestic environment, but also a chance to gain first-hand experience with procedures and standards used by their civilian counterparts.
“We’re working off a set of blueprints from a firm that contracted the design for the road,” said Gunnery Sgt. David Poole, one of the lead Marines for the project. “We’re executing off their plan, making small adjustments here and there with the different conditions out here that we have to adapt around.”
The Marines usually work 10-hour stretches in the arid environment, with temperatures near 90 degrees. They spend their daylight hours carefully grading and compacting the road to the rigorous standards used by commercial construction agencies.
One of the biggest challenges has been maintaining moisture levels along the roadway during the compacting and grading process in the dry climate, said Poole, a Knightdale, N.C. native.
“We’re making good progress every day,” he added. “We do a lot of road and construction work deployed, but we don’t get too many opportunities like this … It takes our heavy equipment operators [working] with our surveyors, who tell them how high or low we need to go in certain spots, to meet certain compaction levels for the road to make sure it doesn’t wash away.”
The work is taxing and precise. It’s also the first chance many of the Marines have had to work with civilian contracting agencies to complete such a large project.
“It definitely is controlled, slow, steady and exact [work], more along the lines of commercial projects,” said Cpl. Wil Whidden, a heavy equipment operator, who completed similar projects during his time in Afghanistan.
“I’m actually gaining a lot more of the overall picture, learning more along the lines of a project manager or site foreman,” said Whidden, a Fort Myers, Fla. native. “It’s along the same lines of what we do forward deployed in theater … I’ve been directing my junior Marines on backfilling and excavating the culvert sites and compacting to make sure we have enough hydration and compaction on the road itself.”
The team was already ahead of schedule by the end of March and expected to wrap up their mission more than a week ahead of schedule.
“Everything we’re doing out here definitely falls within the scope of [our specialties],” said Comiskey. “Putting in culverts, building roads and moving dirt, that’s what we do. This definitely falls right in with what the Marines do on a daily basis. It’s just to a larger extent.”
Another benefit of the operation was the chance to familiarize the Marines with commercial construction equipment they don’t normally get to work with, said Comiskey.
“It’s not necessarily the exact same, but it’s very similar to what we have,” he said. “They’ve been able to use a lot of the civilian versions of what we use, which will definitely help them in the long run by broadening their skills.”