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. The refresher course on the science of explosions is a part of the engineers’ yearly training.
Someone discreetly clears his throat, and then a loud thunking sound, accompanied by a pressure wave and a cloud of dirt, destroys the silence.
The engineers wait for the safety signal to move. When it’s given, they quietly file down to the scene to assess the 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 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 engineers’ 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 on 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.”
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, and we’re experts in (Base Recovery After an Attack) and (Airfield Damage Repair),” said Richardson.
Even so, these Marines need to be prepared for whatever they may encounter on a deployment.
“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 medical IV-bags to use hydrostatic pressure to blow up a metal door.”
Sgt. Pedro Arredondo II, a MWSS-371 combat engineer who transitioned to the wing from a division unit, 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.”
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 out 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, “Y’all are desensitized, I thought more of you would jump.”
None did. But, after all, this is what these Marines are trained for.