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NEWS | May 18, 2010

First in, last out: Air Guard RED HORSE squadron back in Iraq

By Master Sgt. Darrell Habisch 407th Air Expeditionary Group

ALI BASE, Iraq - Members of the 200th Rapid Engineering Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineer Squadron have arrived here to draw down the 557th Expeditionary RED HORSE Squadron from Iraq.

As they complete the last construction and engineering projects and pack up their equipment and materials in the yard, they are part of the last RED HORSE rotation operating under Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2010.

Several civil engineers currently at Ali Base were part of the original 2005 rotation charged with constructing the infrastructure necessary to conduct and sustain operations throughout Iraq, including Ali Base.

In 2005, members of the 200th and 201st RED HORSE Squadrons from the Ohio and Pennsylvania Air National Guard were part of the 557th Expeditionary RED HORSE Squadron, which was the first RED HORSE squadron to stand up in Iraq.

"We were the first 557th Expeditionary RED HORSE Squadron in 2005, and we'll be the last ones leaving Iraq in 2010," said Chief Master Sgt. Richard Bressler, the Chief Enlisted Manager of the 557th Expeditionary RED HORSE Squadron.

A RED HORSE squadron is a self-sufficient group with its own headquarters, logistics and operations branches consisting mostly of members with civil engineering skill-sets including supply, vehicle maintenance, medical and finance members, cooks, security forces and even a chaplain.

"We're a huge construction company, including a full RED HORSE equipment package dedicated to the Central Command Theater of Operations," Bressler said.

As the Air Force's military general contractor in Iraq since 2005, the 557th ERHS has constructed airfield parking ramps, roads, fuel berms, tactical operations centers, electrical distribution centers for power production and much more throughout the Iraq Theater of Operation.

At Ali Base today, a small sampling of the RED HORSE projects will include a new airfield lighting system, a post office relocation project, grading work sites for proper drainage, erecting large aircraft maintenance shelters and much more.

Although the Iraqi terrain remains the same, there are major differences in this deployment from the first deployment in 2005, Bressler said.

"Back then, we did our usual construction work and pulled extra duties like convoy operations, inspecting loads of crushed gravel delivered to the main gate, guard tower duty on the base perimeter and twenty-four hour dining facility security at entry points," he said.

Small-arms fire was not uncommon, with frequent mortar and rocket attacks every other day.

The differences between the two deployments are evident to the civil engineers, said Senior Master Sgt. Craig Boston, the site supervisor.

"In (2005), we worked alongside contractors and shared the base with the Iraqi military at Camp Taji, (Iraq)," he said. "And, they carried weapons too."

Tech. Sgt. Thomas Davidson, the pavements and construction craftsman, said he remembers well his first night in Iraq in 2005.

"I slept in an open bay billet with seven other guys," said Davidson, who was a senior airman in 2005. "The first night, we didn't know if the indirect fire was incoming or artillery rounds going out, so we just slept in the bunkers."

Tech. Sgt. Clayton Heimert, another civil engineer, agreed.

"We went everywhere together back then: to chow, (to) the gym, we were very tight," Heimert said. "Today, everyone has their own living space-most with internet access and other amenities. Now, we're more isolated during off-duty time. I don't like it as much."

Another difference between the earlier and current deployments is the amount of war materiel in the area.

"There were hundreds of Iraqi tanks and armored personnel carriers lined up in rows at Camp Taji in 2005," Chief Bressler said.

The chief also said that construction did not come without a cost.

"We had three purple hearts from convoy operations and two from indirect fire in our bed-down area," he said.

In spite of the hazards, RED HORSE members did their duty and continued to build throughout Iraq, handing the responsibilities from one RED HORSE group to the next, until the wheel turned back to the civil engineers from the 200th Red Horse Squadron, who are again a part of the 557th ERHS, operating on a hub and spoke configuration, with people working at multiple sites throughout the Area of Responsibility.

Chief Bressler said that today, the members of the 557th ERHS are drawing down and redistributing equipment sets and RED HORSE assets elsewhere in the AOR.

"When RED HORSE Guard, Reserve and active-duty members come together, we are extremely productive," the chief said.

Members of RED HORSE are a special breed, Sergeant Boston said.

"We all want to do something to leave a place better than we found it," he said. "Just give us some material to work with, and we're happy."

"It's nice to take part in so much progress, from everything we did back in (2005) to seeing how much the operating bases have changed for the better," Bressler said. "There are other places throughout Central Command (where) we're needed now."