This column presents “Patriot Profiles” to provide readers insight into the lives of our country’s heroes.By Jeanne McKinney
Mobility across natural obstacles can save lives in war. The capture of the Ludendorff Bridge that spanned the Rhine River at Remagen, Germany, infuriated Hitler, as it allowed Allied troops to drive to the heart of Germany. When a tactical need arises and a bridge doesn’t already exist, combat engineers can build them, providing a distinct strategic advantage on the battlefield.
Cpl. Jervis Hettrick, a combat engineer with the 7th Engineer Support Battalion, now serving at Camp Pendleton, is dubbed “a jack of all trades.” He joined the Marine Corps with some roofing background, a year of college and a fascination with everything going on in the war after 9/11 hit close to home in Union Beach, N.J.
As soon as his recruiter read him the job description he knew it was right for him, saying, “I like getting my hands dirty ... yes, this is what I wanted to do.”
Three and a half months of Engineer School in Camp Lejeune, N.C., taught Hettrick the basics of route clearance, demolition, vertical and horizontal construction, survivability and bridging. He joined the fleet in Okinawa, Japan, and was put in a bridge platoon.
“They told me, ‘Get ready, you’re deploying to Afghanistan,’” said Hettrick. During a pre-deployment work-up, they built bridge after bridge. “You learn as you go from your staff noncommissioned officers — people who have been there, done that.”
In 2012, Hettrick was sent to a hotbed of Taliban in Mirmandab, Helmand Valley, Afghanistan, who were raining down bullets, grenades and mortars on Alpha Company 9th ESB.
He was part of engineering operations that supported Special Operations Task Force West, part of Marine Corps Special Operations Command. The gamut of Hettrick’s training came into play.
The task was clear: Enable force vehicle mobility (then limited to foot traffic) and establish a new patrol base and support platform, enabling SOTF-West to push further north to eliminate pockets of insurgents causing havoc.
Bridge building outside the concertina wire is stepping out in no-man’s-land where, according to Hettrick, “Anything can happen at any time. Obviously, improvised explosive devices are always a threat.
“If the enemy sees you re-conning a bridge site — getting measurements and everything, they know what you’re doing and go place IEDS there. We had guys designated in our platoon to do the sweeping.”
Despite careful efforts, “Three weeks into our deployment, one of my corporals, Sgt. Nick Kimmel, stepped on an IED — lost his legs and one arm. When you deploy with an Engineer Support Battalion, everyone’s saying, ‘You’re not going to see combat — you’re not going to see this or that.’…”
Hettrick responds to the assertion, “It
iscombat,” with “Yeah.”
“We had about 30-40 guys on a bridge crew, but everybody is building the bridge. Gunners would provide security. One (bridge) was over just a little gap. We replaced that with a culvert two months later. One was an 11-bay double-story medium-girder bridge over a river. There was another small one we replaced with a non-standard (wooden) bridge — a more permanent structure.”
“Man-size Legos” is what Hettrick and fellow engineers call bridge parts. “Medium-girder bridges are worth a lot of money,” he explains. “It’s magnesium zinc alloy — really strong. If we’re pulling out of Afghanistan, we’re going to want to take those bridges with us.
“Our job the entire deployment was taking the medium bridges out and replacing them with non-standard bridges,” which he described as “concrete footers on each side of the gap with a steel I-beam running across. Then, you deck it.”
Demolition is Hettrick’s favorite part of his job. When they found IEDs while building a bridge, he had fun shooting off MCLCs — “That’s a mine-clearing line charge. It is 1,750 pounds of C-4 (explosive) connected to a rocket.
“It’s crucial. If you’re trying to get from point A to point B and you’ve got a river there, instead of going out of your way for a few hours or days, we can come in and build a bridge in a couple hours. We were constantly working, whether we were outside the wire or inside the wire — always preparing the next bridge,” said Hettrick.
The Germans didn’t see success when they launched a massive counter attack against the Ludendorff bridgehead. American troops had built pontoon and treadway bridges adjacent to the span — a tenacious assurance the Allied advance would continue, even when the Ludendorff suddenly collapsed.
The nine-plus bridges still left in the Helmand Valley by 9th ESB are a tenacious reminder of Marines finding solutions. These engineering feats, pounded by armored tracks, tires, and boot steps, also give local villagers reliable routes to connect socially and economically.
Hettrick says, “That bridge is going to stay there even after the war — those Afghan people are going to use that bridge every day.”
In addition to bridges, four new patrol bases with berms, concertina wire, guard towers, and berthing areas offer Marines refuge in no-man’s-land, thanks to the laboring hands of Hettrick and his platoon. “We even built two patrol bases for the Georgians.”
He explained that along with the Georgians and Jordanians, “there were a whole bunch of people over there.”
When a school in the Philippines was damaged by a volcano in 2013, Hettrick’s platoon helped rebuild, first having to dig out 3 feet of ash. “Hundreds of kids from now until that school is not there anymore know that we built it. It’s a pretty cool feeling.”
Support from his family, friends, and people he works with inspire Hettrick. “I have brothers here in the Marine Corps — these are my brothers.”
Seeing how Sgt. Kimmel has overcome tragedy with no legs and no left arm fills Hettrick with perspective: “He golfs, races trucks off-road, snowboards, works for the Padres … He lives a happier and more fulfilling life than most of the people I know.
“If I wake up and I’m tired and I’ve got to put my boots on, I think back to that day and realize, some people have to wake up and put their legs on. I’m happy to put my boots on every day. Experiences good or bad, you’re never going to forget them when you’re a Marine.”
At Camp Pendleton, Cpl. Jervis Hettrick is a Bridge Master, equivalent to a civilian construction foreman. As commander of a bridge crew, he adamantly assures, “I still get my hands dirty.”