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07-25-08, 08:08 AM
On the front lines, wrench in hand
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MCLB sends employees to Iraq, Japan to assist with war maintenance
July 24, 2008 - 4:53PM
By Aaron Aupperlee, city editor

“We lived with them, and we worked with them. The only thing we didn’t do was carry a weapon.”
Doug Lawrence, former Marine and MCLB electrician, on his experience working with Marines in Al Asad, Iraq

BARSTOW — When Doug Lawrence returned from Iraq, he had a hard time going back to work.

A civilian electrician at the Marine Corps Logistics Base in Barstow, Lawrence said colleagues kept pulling him away from his workstation to hear stories about his time repairing vehicles with the Marines in Iraq.

“And I tell them the truth,” Lawrence said. “It was great.”

Lawrence, who lives in Hinkley, is one of 24 MCLB civilian employees who recently returned from a one-year stint as mechanics in Iraq. The employees teamed up with Marines to repair broken down and battle-damaged Humvees, trucks and mine-resistant ambush protective vehicles — essentially an armored vehicle on steroids, said Engineering Equipment Branch Head Scott Stevens.

Sometimes working for 24 hours straight, the MCLB employees and Marine mechanics were able to repair even some of the most severely damaged vehicles and get them back out on the front lines ready to fight.

Lawrence volunteered to leave home and head to Iraq, as did Jeremy Clark, a 23-year-old mechanic who never thought he would head to Iraq when he started working at the Barstow base three years ago. Clark spent a majority of his time working with Marines in Fallujah, west of Baghdad. There, he replaced suspensions and repaired vehicles damaged from landmines and other explosives. He said Marines who came into the yard with damaged vehicles were often anxious to get back into the field.

“Just get me my vehicle back as quickly as possible,” Clark said Marines would tell him. “So I can go out again.”

Both acknowledged that working in Iraq posed more dangers than working at home in Barstow, but for the most part, their work was not interrupted by enemy fire. Lawrence does not remember hearing gunfire or mortar rounds in Al Asad, a city northwest of Baghdad that was further away from the main areas of fighting. In Fallujah, known for its violence throughout the war, Clark said gunfire was a nightly occurrence. Enemy fire, he said, never made it into the base where he worked.

“You’d just watch a cloud of dust,” he said of enemy bullets landing outside the base’s protected area.

One team of employees returned on July 16, and Stevens said another group would be returning in two months. He expects more employees from the Barstow base to temporarily move to installations closer to the conflict if the war continues. He said the expertise of the MCLB’s employees has become increasingly valuable during the war. Having civilian employees work on vehicles frees up Marines capable of fighting and puts a larger presence in the field, Stevens said.

“A lot of people are asking for us,” he said. “I don’t see this stopping anytime soon.”

Lawrence, who is a former Marine, hopes the opportunity will come around for him to return to Iraq. He said being in the war zone made him feel useful. He said he felt like he was really contributing to the war effort even though the work he does at the MCLB is crucial to ensuring the Marines have working and properly armored vehicles for the fight. The Marines were grateful for his work, and he could see the impact of his labor on their faces everyday, he said.

“I didn’t want to come back.”

A helping hand in Japan

When the Marines stationed at Camp Foster in Okinawa, Japan deployed to Iraq, civilian employees from the Marine Corps Logistics Base in Barstow moved in to maintain the equipment they left behind.

A team of 10 employees from the MCLB landed in Okinawa in April to repair and maintain heavy equipment left behind by the Marine Wing Support Group 17, said Scott Stevens, head of the engineering equipment branch at the MCLB. The group volunteered for the assignment and headed across the Pacific with more than 200 years combined experience.

“What is amazing about these gentlemen is they all have specialties at the maintenance center, but what they’re doing in Okinawa is not related to their specialty,” Stevens said. “They’re just able to pick it up. ...Our guys weren’t afraid to open a book.”

At Camp Foster, the MCLB employees have worked on more than 20 different pieces of equipment, some of which the men have experience with and some new to them. The group has also assisted with maintenance on some of the island’s light armored vehicles and amphibious assault vehicles, mainstays of the Barstow base’s operations.

Walking down one of the maintenance lines at the Barstow base, Stevens pointed out some of the equipment the men in Okinawa are working on, such as beefed up forklifts and tractors used for creating make-shift airfields in the desert of Iraq.

In addition to maintaining and repairing the equipment while a majority of the unit is at war, the employees are also training the Marines remaining in Japan on their own equipment. According to the Okinawa Marine, the camp’s newspaper, Col. Ben Braden, the commanding officer of the unit, said the young Marines, most of whom just completed training camp, were learning more from the Barstow employees than they would have learned in three or four years in the Marines.

Grandview resident John Tucker, the foreman of the group, told the newspaper that the group was glad they were able to come to Japan to help the Marines.

“It is an honor to be able to pass on our knowledge and experience to these Marines,” the paper quoted Tucker as saying.

The group, which landed in Japan in April, is scheduled to leave in August but Stevens said additional funding could give the employees the option of staying until the end of September.

Contact the writer:
(760) 256-4121 or aaron_aupperlee@link.freedom.com