October 4, 2012

From the mound to the clouds:

Combat Engineers’ explosive operations at YPG

Story by Cpl. Sean Dennison and Lance Cpl. Uriel Avendano
Desert Warrior Staff
Photo by Cpl. Sean Dennison
Marine Wing Support Squadron 371 Marines casually pose for a platoon photo during the combat engineer demolition range, Sept. 26. The blast behind the Marines is what’s known as a Fougasse, which was created by the combat engineers by combining 55 galloons of JP8 and 10 sticks of C-4.


A small formation of Marine Wing Support Squadron 371 Marines, most of them combat engineers, stares silently at a small desert clearing. It’s a pretty normal scene for Yuma’s ranges—rugged emptiness beneath a blue sky—save for the fact there are primed charges about to detonate.


The Marines wait for the detonation. It’s the middle of their demolition range, held Sept. 24-28 at the U.S. Army Proving Grounds’ KOFA Ranges Complex, a part of the engineers’ yearly training to go through a refresher course on the science of explosions.


Someone discreetly clears their throat, and then a loud thunking sound, accompanied by a pressure wave and a cloud of dirt, destroys the silence.

Marine Corps Air Station Yuma’s combat engineer Marines from Marine Wing Support Squadron 371 took part in a demolition range exercise at the Yuma Proving Grounds near the KOFA Mountains region, Sept. 26. “Who doesn’t want to blow things up?” said Lance Cpl. Lee Maxfield, a MWSS-371 combat engineer and a native of Anoka, Minn. “It helps me retain my knowledge. It’s something we do as combat engineers; this is what our job is about.”

The engineers wait for the safety signal to move. When it’s given they quietly file down to the scene to assess their damage.

Combat engineers, especially on deployment, are called upon to use their skills for a variety of tasks, including sweeping for mines, route clearance and architectural deconstruction.

“Essentially, as combat engineers we are required to be jacks of all trades and experts in a few,” said 1st Lt. Steven Richardson, the MWSS-371 combat engineer platoon commander and a native of Chicago. “We come out here at least, at a minimum, once a year to refamiliarize the Marines with demo handling, and the theories behind it to understand how it works and how we use it in combat.”

Improvisation is key for combat engineers, who use anything from ammo cans to piping as mediums for destruction. While on the range, they practiced with expedient grape shots, or ammo cans filled with nails, as well as improvised Claymore mines. To test the engineer’s explosives, the Marines set up targets to simulate a squad of insurgents.

Urban breaching bookended the training with Marines using blasts to enter buildings.

It’s fair to say a good deal of geometry and physics goes into the job, explained Richardson. Using shape charges and primed material known as data sheets, engineers are able to shape the direction and force of their blasts, depending if the job calls for an explosive entrance or a clean slice on a supply route.

“This is what our job is about,” said Lance Cpl. Lee Maxfield, a MWSS-371 combat engineer and a native of Anoka, Minn. “Yes, there’s construction and bridging, but this training right here puts my job to the test.”

Marine Wing Support Squadron 371 combat engineers prepare to “pop smoke” before initiating a detonation on one of their charges during the MWSS-371 combat engineers demolition range at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Grounds KOFA Ranges Complex, Sept. 26.

Richardson listed the four major functions of combat engineers as mobility, countermobility, survivability and general engineering. Though an engineer should be able to function in any one of those capacities anywhere, the focus of an engineer’s job does change between the Marine Air Wing and other commands falling under Division and Logistics Groups.

“Marine Wing Support Squadrons support the wing,” said Richardson. “We’re experts in BRAAT (Base Recovery After an Attack) and ADR (Airfield Damage Repair).”

Still . . .

“We may need to clear a house or a building, whatever the case may be,” he added. “We do that with an x number of Marines who will place a charge on the door or ceiling and then blow the charge, depending on what kind of door or wall it is and enter the house. And that’s everything from using six blocks of C-4 for a concrete charge or using IV-bags from medical to use hydro-static pressure to blow up a metal door.”

Sgt. Pedro Arredondo II, a MWSS-371 combat engineer who transitioned to the Wing from Division, says events like these are important because they show first-tour engineers “another side of engineering.”

“It’s good for them to know what is required of an engineer,” he said. “No matter where they are, it’s important they know all about engineering.”

Marine Wing Support Squadron 371 Combat Engineer Platoon while waiting for one of their munitions to go off. Because of the danger of shrapnel and debris flying through the air, ballistic eyewear is must for an engineer.

For some of the junior Marines, it was indeed an opportune time to test their creativity in the field.

“I learned how to cut wine bottles,” said Lance Cpl. Jonathan Schild, a MWSS-371 combat engineer and a native of Memphis, Tenn. “Say World War III breaks off and I need a shape charge. Now I know I can take a wine bottle, cut it in half with some data sheet or burning fuel and an ammo can full of water.”

Each successful day saw the Marines march back to the campground, where hot chow awaited them as well as the prospect of more destruction.

During a debriefing, when a latent charge detonated, Richardson commented to the Marines, “Ya’ll are desensitized, I thought more of you would jump.”

None did.

Sgt. Sean Jenkins, a Marine Wing Support Squadron 371 draft and surveying specialist and a native of St. Louis, Mo., hangs a target up as part of a simulated insurgent platoon set-up during the MWSS-371 combat engineers demolition range at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Grounds KOFA Ranges Complex, Sept. 26.

Pfc. Ian Carignan, a Marine Wing Support Squadron combat engineer and a native of Miami, Fla., sets up a target during the MWSS-371 combat engineers demolition range at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Grounds KOFA Ranges Complex, Sept. 26.

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