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Pioneering nondoctrinal bridging operations: the "roller skate" repair.

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Engineers are fundamentally problem solvers. Whether the problem is getting people to their destination or shaping the battlefield, odds are that an engineer can and will solve the problem. Engineers can usually adapt tested, doctrinal methods to fit a given situation. But sometimes tested, doctrinal methods aren't enough. As the 502d Engineer Company learned while repairing a bridge near Baghdad, when engineers can't adapt doctrine, they must pioneer it.

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The problem started with erosion cutting away the bank of a river. The edges of the bank were coming closer, day by day, to the ends of the bridge. The doctrinal approach would have engineers stop the erosion of the bank or extend the length of the bridge so its ends could rest a safe distance away from the precarious edge. But halting the erosion wouldn't solve the problem in this case, because the bridge already rested dangerously close to the river's edge. And the bridge was already at its maximum safe length. The bridge company would need another solution.

The Soldiers of the 502d continued to brainstorm for a new idea, but nearly everyone reluctantly agreed that the solution was going to be difficult. Because the bridge was originally emplaced at an angle, removing the entire bridge and building a new one at the correct angle would solve the problem. This would require a lot of resources, close the bridge for several days, and make it difficult to resupply Soldiers in some combat outposts. While some people would have accepted this difficult plan and its corresponding risk, one noncommissioned officer devised a nondoctrinal solution that would save manpower, resources, and perhaps lives--simply rotate the bridge.

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While the concept may seem elementary, rotating a 90-ton, million dollar bridge is anything but simple. Any such attempt would be nondoctrinal, unorthodox, and unprecedented. In short, the 502d needed to risk pioneering a new technique. Members from the company's maintenance platoon fabricated two pairs of enormous "roller skates" from damaged parts of older bridges. Sliding on these roller skates, both ends of the bridge could simultaneously swing into their new locations. But would the proposed solution work? While back-of-the-envelope calculations supported the design, no one could be sure without testing. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough time for testing. Even if the proposed solution were sound, dozens of other factors could easily lead to catastrophic failure.

Arriving on site, the 502d engineers quickly established security, removed the bridge's on-ramps, lifted the ends of the bridge, and attached the roller skates. Once the engineers connected the roller skates, they hooked up a system of winches to pull the bridge into its new position. Next came the moment of truth. The engineers paused and awaited the final command to start pulling. In a few short moments, the uncertainty surrounding this nondoctrinal solution would be settled. A loud "Pull" crackled over the radio, and the winches began to tighten. With an audible metallic groan, the bridge began to roll and rotated without a problem into its final position.

The plan worked. Engineers had solved the problem. Because the Soldiers of the 502d couldn't adapt old doctrine to solve a problem, they engineered a solution of their own. While some may consider this process risky, it's ultimately how new doctrine starts. By designing, implementing, and pioneering a nondoctrinal solution, the members of the 502d proved themselves worthy of the title "Engineers"--problem solvers.

Photographs by First Lieutenant Nicholas A. Soroka.

By First Lieutenant Nicholas A. Soroka

First Lieutenant Soroka is a platoon leader for the 502d Engineer Company (Multirole Bridge), Hanau, Germany. He completed the Engineer Officer Basic Course in January 2007, and the Sapper Leader Course in February 2008 at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. He holds a bachelor's in civil engineering from the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York.
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Author:Soroka, Nicholas A.
Publication:Engineer: The Professional Bulletin for Army Engineers
Date:Jul 1, 2008
Words:639
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