Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Notts soldiers build a legacy in Iraq

Notts soldiers are coming home from Iraq. But before they do, ERIK PETERSEN visited to see the work they're finishing as the British military's time in the country comes to a close. In the first of a four-day series, he meets Notts soldiers who have worked in Basra, helping to build and rebuild a once-broken city.

BACK home in Notts, Stacey Devine-Bradbury works in a law office. In her role as legal secretary, she has not once been asked to spend Christmas camped on a roof at a building site.
But at the moment, she's not Stacey Devine-Bradbury, legal secretary.

She's Sapper Devine-Bradbury of the Territorial Army's 73 Engineer Regiment.

She's in Iraq. And she's got a job to do. Along with the fellow Chilwell-based soldiers of the 170 Infrastructure Engineers, the 73 Engineers is now attached to the 35 Engineers Regiment, and the larger group is keeping busy.

British troops may be preparing to leave the sprawling city in the Iraqi south, but it's the engineers who get the call to build the legacy projects that Iraqis will use for years after.

Which helps explain what Sapper Devine-Bradbury was doing on a Basra rooftop on Christmas Eve. The building in question was a new police station. Thing is, when you're a builder and a soldier, you don't leave the building site in the evening. You stay on to guard it.

So Christmas morning for Sapper Devine-Bradbury, from Mansfield, and other soldiers meant enjoying a festive meal of ration packs and cups of coffee from a rooftop perch.

"Usually, I sit behind my desk typing work up," she said. "Here is more physical work and different hours compared to my 9-to-5 job."

That particular job also meant weeks of dogs yapping in the night and whipping winter winds.
"We've had all sorts of weather conditions," said Lance Corporal Lyndsey Dove, from Mansfield, also of the 73 Engineers. "We've had wind, hail, rain...".

But when the job was done, the soldiers could admire new buildings that will stand in Basra when British accents have faded from the streets.

The 35 Engineers and their attached regiments pride themselves on being able to do just about whatever needs doing.

"We're combat engineers," said Lt Kieran Wilkinson, from Mansfield. "We can build bridges – and blow them up."

As well as police stations, the 35 – in military parlance, you say it as two numbers, "the three-five" – has a diverse CV, including building new neighbourhood markets, repairing canals and runways and training the local military in bomb detection and policing methods.

"We're soldiers first, then combat engineers, then artisans," said Lieutenant Colonel Paul Buttery, the 35's commanding officer. "We design, resource, construct – it's a mantra of ours."

It's a mantra that frequently gets the combat engineers off the sprawling, dusty base at Basra Airport that has acted as the hub of British operations. As cold and noisy as city jobs like the station-building could be, they're also a change of scenery. Curious children are always around – waving, trying out English words, challenging soldiers to football matches, seeing if there was any sweets on offer.

The menu can even change. Soldiers who worked on the Old State Building in the middle of Basra socialised a bit with their Iraqi colleagues.

"I made a point of making all the boys go eat in the Iraqi cookhouse," Lieutenant Nick Gunnell said. (After some initial culinary trepidation, the soldiers of the 35 were won over by Iraqi home cooking.)

And the surroundings can take a turn for the surreal. Soldiers from the 35 recently set up tents on the grounds of Basra Palace, one of Saddam Hussein's former party places.

The palace – actually a series of faux-Arabic palaces backing onto the Shatt al-Arab river and facing a man-made lake – was originally built by Saddam for the exclusive use of his family. Flanked by palm trees and drenched in bombast, they're not subtle – think Versailles mixed with Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch. Up until now their only purpose was to showcase the former dictator's wealth.

Now they're being converted into something a bit more useful – military and police headquarters that the Americans will use for a time, then hand over to the Iraqis.

Sapper Ben Dunford had been in Basra since late November but hadn't yet worked on any jobs in the city. He was heading off base for his first urban project. After that, he was heading to Notts for his two weeks of R-and-R. Before going home, he reckoned he needed some stories.

"I haven't seen the city," he said. "So I'm kind of glad I'm going there because when I go home and people ask 'What was Basra like?', I won't have to say 'I don't know, I never went off base.'"
Warrant Officer Class II Terry Ward didn't spend as much time off base – he was among the members of 35 Engineers tasked with making sure everyone who went out, was prepared. The Eastwood native, whose January R-and-R break timed nicely with Eastwood Town's unprecedented FA Cup journey, runs everything from tank training courses to morning PT.

"We do everything," he said. "Providing the regiment with all the training it requires to go out on operation."

Once the 35 is out there, WOII Ward also helps organise touches like a football tournament for British and American soldiers, as well as Iraqi military and police. The Premier League donated kit for all 20 teams, which was auctioned off among different groups and units for charity. (The 35 paid a tournament-high £850 for the privilege of playing in the Hull City strip.)

Soon, many of those same soldiers will be playing their weekend football on pitches around Notts. Much of the work they're now doing is getting things ready for the American soldiers who will maintain a presence.

As Yank accents slowly seep into the base, that one last trip – the 40-minute military flight to the base in Kuwait, then the six-hour charter flight to England or Germany – gets nearer and nearer.

Nearer, but not here yet. Before all that, the 35 has a job to finish.

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