Seabees and Estonians Build Bridges of Steel and Friendship
By Lt. Cmdr. Kim Dixon and Lt. Pat McGovern
Special to American Forces Press Service
TARTU, Estonia, Aug. 16, 2000 U.S. Navy Seabees and Estonian soldiers are using Partnership for Peace Exercise Cornerstone 00-2 here to build bridges -- one made of metal and the other of goodwill and friendship.
The purpose of Cornerstone, sponsored by U.S. Naval Forces Europe Command, is to develop a common understanding of peace support operations and enhance procedures to conduct them with different units. It is a two-phase joint combined exercise.
Seaman Courtney Riester (from center left), Petty Officer 2nd class Dexter Burnside, an Estonian soldier (yellow helmet) and Petty Officer 3rd class Patrick Sillers work together preparing the bridge site for the concrete pour. The three Seabees are members of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 133. U.S. Navy Seabees and Estonian soldiers are building the Poltsamaa bridge as part of Exercise Cornerstone 00-2. Construction is scheduled for completion Aug. 23. Navy Photo.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
During Phase I, Army National Guard and Marine Reservists conducted combat engineering training with Estonian engineers and other units, and Latvian and Lithuanian engineers. During Phase II, the Seabees worked with Estonian units on humanitarian projects, including the construction of a bridge, renovation of a kitchen facility for the homeless, construction work at an orphanage, and assembly of two camp shelters.
The crew of the Poltsamaa bridge project consists of active duty Seabees from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 133 of Gulfport, Miss., and Naval Reserve Seabees from NMCB 24 of Huntsville, Ala.; and Estonian soldiers of Tartu Single Infantry Battalion here.
The task before this combined crew is to install a Russian steel girder bridge by Aug. 23. The bridge structure is like nothing else the Seabees have never seen and its five pieces had spent years in the yard of an Estonian machine shop. While others sandblasted and painted the bridge parts, the Seabees and Estonians prepared the crossing site.
The fate of the previous bridge is unknown. The only signs there had ever been one were the two roads that dead-ended on opposite river banks. The crew's first task was to create a temporary bridge so workers could cross back and forth while building concrete bridge pilings. In came the ingenuity of Chief Warrant Officer Greg "Wojo" Wojciechowski of the 2nd Naval Construction Brigade from Little Creek, Va.
"I got the idea from old World War II Seabee photos," said the Delran, N.J., native. "I had made a similar one when I was a kid growing up at a lake in New Jersey. It wasn't the original plan, though."
The crew was going to use 55-gallon steel drums and timber to make the bridge. However, Wojo came across four 20-foot Boston whalers while touring Estonian base storage facilities.
"They were just sitting there unused," Wojo said. "I thought, why not use boats instead of barrels? I asked permission and we got to use them." The riverboat bridge was safer, easier to cross and kept everyone's feet much drier than the drum bridge would have, he noted.
The Seabees then tackled embankments that anchor the bridge on both sides of the river. Construction began by driving steel- reinforced concrete pilings into the river banks and then clearing dirt from around them to a depth of about three feet. Builders placed rebar -- steel reinforcement rods -- into the dug-out areas and filled them with concrete.
"It's pretty hard work," said Petty Officer 1st class Tony Nagy of Danville, Ky., a reservist with NMCB 24. "The work is physically demanding. Even so, the Estonians usually don't take a break unless I give it to them."
Working side by side with the Estonians -- training for combined humanitarian assistance operations before a real-life crisis -- is a goal of Cornerstone 00-2. Nagy, one of the leading petty officers on the crew, is not the only U.S. Seabee to extol the benefits of training alongside Estonian counterparts.
"I couldn't believe some of the rocks they lifted out of the (embankment) holes," said Seaman Brian Glodek of Hoffman Estates, Ill., a member of NMCB 133. "Working with the Estonians is pretty cool." And it isn't just their rock- lifting ability that impressed.
"They take the initiative," said Nagy of the Estonians in his charge. All are in their early twenties and completing their mandatory military service. "They are good, hard workers and excellent carpenters. You tell them to do something once and they do it, no questions asked."
And asking questions could be a challenging proposition. While many Estonians have some basic English skills, they usually aren't fluent enough to discuss the fine points of bridge building. Most of their American counterparts speak no Estonian whatever. Full-time translators ensure communications, but they coan't be everywhere at once.
"Making small talk with the Estonians is hard," said NMCB 133 Petty Officer 3rd class Courtney Riester of Culver, Ind. Nonetheless, "we were able to communicate and get the work done."
After completing the embankments the bridge sections were launched. Metal pallets stacked into temporary piers rose from the river to where the bottom of the bridge sections would be. The tops of the piers were fitted with rollers. A bulldozer then pulled the assembled bridge sections over the piers from one side of the river to the other, Wojo said. Metal approach ramps, handrails and some other finishing touches remain to be added by the Aug. 23 completion target.
At first, it seemed the bridge, sitting in the middle of the Estonian countryside, would sit virtually unused. The Seabees discovered otherwise.
Their future first customer may be the guy who tried to walk his bike and dog across the riverboat bridge, said crew chief Petty Officer 2nd class Daric Boe of NMCB 133.
"We couldn't figure out why he would come to the spot where the bridge was out," Boe said. "When we told him not to use the temporary bridge, he just jumped into the water and continued to walk across. He wasn't the only one who did that. I guess that's how they'd been crossing the river."
So the ready-made Estonian clientele eagerly awaits the completion of the permanent bridge. Even more, the bridge to U.S.-Estonian friendship is already being crossed, with both parties well on their way to meeting in the middle.
(Lt. Cmdr. Kim Dixon and Lt. Pat McGovern are members of the Cornerstone 00-2 public affairs office.)