Army engineers brush up on ancient art of playing in the dirt

March 13, 2017 Updated: March 13, 2017 at 5:39 pm
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A Caterpillar D7 bulldozer digs a berm around a camp while Spc. Montserrat Salinas watches Friday, March 10, 2017, at Fort Carson's training site at Pinon Canyon east of Trinidad, Colo. The 615th Engineer Company of the 4th ID Engineer Brattalion wil be training at the site for two weeks. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

PIÑON CANYON — The Army is back to doing something so basic that it's hard to imagine why it nearly went away - digging holes.

It's a combat skill that's been required since the Romans, but one the Army has neglected during 15 years of fighting insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. But if another war comes, the lowly hole in the dirt could be the only thing between American troops and destruction.

"There's nothing more easily on hand to stop bullets than dirt," said 1st Lt. Nicholas Antoniou, as he watched his soldiers push big piles of the stuff with 40-ton bulldozers Friday.

Playing in dirt wasn't a priority as soldiers fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. In those wars, the enemies didn't have tanks or other tools that dirt can defeat. They did have plenty of bombs, which the Army's combat engineers were tasked with finding and disabling.

But against the world's stoutest armies, including the heavily armored forces of China and Russia, dirt remains a key defensive tool. So Capt. David Watt had Antoniou and other soldiers in the 4th Engineers digging holes of all sizes.

"We're all the way from individual fighting positions to brigade or division assembly areas," he said.

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A Caterpillar D7 bulldozer cuts a line while digging a defensive trench Friday, March 10, 2017, at Fort Carson's training site at Pinon Canyon east of Trinidad, Colo. The 615th Engineer Company of the 4th ID Engineer Brattalion wil be training at the site for two weeks. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

Watt's soldiers are in the middle of two weeks of training at Piñon Canyon, a 235,000-acre windswept piece of prairie that comes with plenty of the exercise's top requirement: dirt. On Friday, Watt's soldiers worked to cut a mile-long anti-tank trench to stop a mock enemy.

"We have 24 hours to prepare a defense," Watt said.

Bulldozers scraped at the rocky soil. It was a painfully slow construct of an obstacle that would grow to 10 feet deep and 15 feet wide.

Staff Sgt. Kelley Archer kept a close eye on the trench work. The difficult conditions, she said, were ideal for training.

"This is what we live for," she said. "This is what we like."

The trench is one of warfare's oldest tools. The Romans used it in sieges. The Continental Army used it to take out the British, and the British used it to conquer Napoleon.

"We talk a lot about history," Watt said.

History has shown that dirt barricades can also allow a smaller force to defeat a larger force.

Building those dirt obstacles isn't easy.

Operators must push with precision with their bulldozers while encircled in a cloud of dust.

"You can't really see out from a bulldozer," Sgt. Tyler Greives said. "It's a seat of the pants thing."

In addition to the anti-tank ditch, soldiers also built a quarter-mile long berm to box in friendly troops while deflecting the fire of mock enemies.

Sgt. Jessica Schultz watches as two Caterpillar D7 bulldozer dig a defensive trench Friday, March 10, 2017, at Fort Carson's training site at Pinon Canyon east of Trinidad, Colo. The 615th Engineer Company of the 4th ID Engineer Brattalion wil be training at the site for two weeks. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

The berm, which required the work of four bulldozers, was 10 feet high when it was finished with sides steep enough to stop a tank and enough bulk to easily absorb bullets or artillery shells.

Watt said the obstacles force an enemy to either choose a tough, time-consuming route to penetrate the dirt obstacles or force an enemy commander to scrap their plans and to go around.

Back at the ditch, Staff Sgt. David Hatcher said this kind of dirt work was common during the Cold War when he entered the Army the first time in 1990. Hatcher came back in 2009, and the big dirt projects were gone.

"We don't get out to do this as much as we like to," he said.

Looking at the tank ditch, he smiled as he thought about what it could do to enemy armor - picture a castle's moat without the water.

"They fall in," he said.

All that dirt moving does come at a price or Fort Carson soldiers - they have to clean up when they're finished.

Watt said every bit of dirt, sand and gravel will be pushed back in place at the end of the training.

"We have a day and a half to get the dirt back in the hole once we're done," he said.

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Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Twitter: @xroederx

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