Sunday, March 16, 2003

Seabees off to do war's heavy work


Construction battalion reserves ship out

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] Mike Christman embraces his girlfriend Robin Wright (left) and daughter Myesha Christman, 14, before boarding a bus with his Seabees unit Saturday from the Naval Reserve Center on Gilbert Avenue in Walnut Hills.
(Mike Simons photos)
| ZOOM |
As the sun rose Saturday morning, an all-too-familiar scene played itself out in the parking lot of the Naval Reserve Center on Gilbert Avenue in Walnut Hills.

It was the sight of men going off to war.

This time, it was the 29 men of the 26th Naval Mobile Construction Battalion, the Navy's legendary "Seabees" - construction workers, electricians, heavy equipment operators who do the Navy's heavy lifting, often under hostile fire.

Saturday morning, the men, dressed in civilian clothes, loaded their sea duffels into the cargo hold of a waiting charter bus, barked out "Present" during roll, and spent a precious few last moments with wives, children, parents and sweethearts before embarking on a trip that will take them first to Gulfport, Miss., and later, quite probably, to Iraq itself.

"I'm so going to miss you," shouted Jeff Rayford of Walnut Hills, as the men broke ranks from roll call and he rushed into the arms of his fiancee, Yolanda James. They hugged each other tightly, whispered in each other's ears.

Nearby, a 4-year-old girl clung to her father's neck as he knelt down to hold her, tears streaming down her cheeks. "Don't go, Daddy; don't go.''

Ben Graves, a 22-year-old Seabee from New Carlisle, Ohio, hugged his newlywed bride, Carrie. His sister's children, 3-year-old Elizabeth Erickson and 12-year-old William Erickson, clutched American flags and tugged at his trousers, trying to stay as close to their uncle as they could for as long as they could.

[photo] Ben Graves of Fairborn takes a moment to be close to his new wife, Carrie, before leaving for duty with his reserve unit.
| ZOOM |
"You could see this coming; we knew sooner or later we would be called up," said Graves, who spent two years in the active duty Navy before becoming a reservist. He said that is why, three weeks ago, he and Carrie decided to get married.

Graves and the other Seabees had a long day of travel ahead of them. From Gilbert Avenue, the bus took them to the airport in Louisville, where they were to board a commercial airliner for a flight to New Orleans. A bus there would take them to the naval base at Gulfport.

The unit, along with its sister units from Dayton and Columbus, will wait in Gulfport for up to 30 days before getting their overseas orders.

"We'll be over there setting up tent cities for the troops, building runways, doing the construction work that is going to make life easier for the troops over there,'' said Master Chief Petty Officer Joe Dunaway.

Most of them men, Dunaway said, work in the building trades in civilian life.

"They're all experienced at building," Dunaway said. "That's what Seabees do."

At 7:30 a.m., as the bus full of Seabees pulled out onto Gilbert Avenue and disappeared, many of the families stayed behind in little knots dotting the parking lots, hugging each other.

American Red Cross volunteers walked among the family members, offering doughnuts and coffee and taking down contact information for the families.

Larry O'Toole of Bridgetown was one of those volunteers. The scene brought back memories of when he was a young Seabee and left that same Naval Reserve Station more than a 30 years ago for a tour of duty in Vietnam.

"I was talking to some of these fellows earlier, asking them what their job is," O'Toole said, pouring himself a cup of coffee in the early morning chill.

"They were saying, `construction, heavy equipment operator, electrician,' " O'Toole said. "I said `No, no, no. Your job is to become an old Seabee like me. Your job is to come home.' "

E-mail hwilkinson@enquirer.com




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