Temporary Immunity

Mar 10, 2003  •  Post A Comment

U.S. Marine Sergeant Jesse Jokinen was wearing his helmet and full body armor. But instead of an M-16 rifle he carried a level. Instead of a hand grenade hanging from his vest, there was a retractable tape measure. Although the focus of an impending war with Iraq spans the globe, here, in the desert an hour from Kuwait City, it is measured in inches.
Jokinen is with the 8th Engineers Battalion, which must be prepared for the possibility that Iraqi forces will blow up bridges and dams, anything to slow down an American assault. It would be the 8th’s job to make sure tanks, trucks and troops get across anything in their path. That means building bridges-and fast.
So on this day, for practice-and a little press coverage-Jokinen’s active-duty Alpha Company engineers would compete against Michigan reservists from Bravo Company to see who could be the first to assemble a medium girder bridge across a 90-foot-wide pit dug out of the sand. With 450 journalists in Kuwait all looking for something to do, days filled with hummus and humdrum, this was not only a legitimate story, it was manna from heaven.
When their work was done, we would assemble our own bridge of videotape, chronicling this drama that preceded the one we have actually come to witness. From a TV reporter’s perspective, all the elements were there: an extreme environment, colorful personalities and competition. It might as well have been an episode of “Survivor.”
I would shoot Alpha Company and my partner Bill Skinner would shoot Bravo Company as the Marines, using almost nothing but thick crowbars and their bare hands, turned 49,000 pounds of metal into something you could drive a truck across-an event, coincidentally, that would signify the winner.
Sergeant Jokinen coaxed his company to a commanding lead. Though some of the individual pieces weighed as much as 600 pounds, the Marines muscled them into their tongue-and-groove slots, sliding in giant connecting pins and locking them together with metal clips. It was an impressive display of speed, precision and engineering. Marines swarmed like ants, lifting, hauling, banging and slamming, until, one hour and 59 minutes into the competition, Alpha Company hopped aboard its five-ton truck and drove across the chasm.
They were proud and sweaty and rightly so. They had won a in this round of survivor. The next time might not be so decisive.