Day at the zoo no picnic for Utah engineering battalion
|A guardsman from the 1457th on duty at the Bagdad Zoo in Iraq. The zoo was decimated during the war.|
The zoo normally brings visions of smiling kids, cotton candy and balloons. The soldiers of C Company, 1457th Engineer Combat Battalion found none of these when they were ordered to the Baghdad zoo. Their mission was to remove Iraqi artillery pieces and destroyed vehicles left on the zoo grounds from the war.
Iraqi military forces moved onto the zoo grounds shortly before Americans invaded Baghdad, according to zoo employees, who have continued their work. Iraqi soldiers dug defensive positions, placed sandbags and brought over a dozen artillery pieces onto the zoo grounds hoping to find a safe haven from American air strikes.
Charlie Company, whose armories are in Spanish Fork and Blanding have stayed busy since moving into Iraq. After assisting with the highly publicized mission to dig for Saddam's remains, C Company continues to show why Utah Guardsmen can handle any task.
Staff Sergeant Benjamin Van Zant of American Fork, who has been overseeing the project, says "We have been very lucky. We're getting missions that are challenging yet exciting. I can't really complain."
Once military ordnance specialists determined the artillery pieces were safe to move, the 1457th began the task of loading and moving them. Using heavy equipment and tractor trailers, the engineers loaded and hauled the big guns and vehicle carcasses across Baghdad to a giant junkyard many miles away. Moving the large semi trailers through narrow and winding streets is a complex task, especially in a war-torn city of over 5 million residents. The pace of the capital city is lively and soldiers must pay careful attention to their surroundings. Civilian vehicles switch lanes without notice, trying to move in and out of the convoys. The streets are filled with people, scampering about doing their daily business. Some people try to sell trinkets to the soldiers as they drive by. Some people try to beg food and water and others just simply stare at the Americans. The mission of the Utah Engineers is to help restore basic services to Baghdad citizens, and bring peace to the city.
The Baghdad zoo, located a few blocks from the Tigris River, opened around 1970. About 9 months before the war the zoo was closed to the public. A new and modern addition was added, including playgrounds, gardens and water attractions. The grand opening was scheduled for Saddam Hussein's birthday but the war forced plans to change.
Most of the citizens of Baghdad have not had a chance to see the new grounds. Utah Guardsmen are helping to make the zoo a reality again. After the war, looters and poachers depleted the zoo's main attraction, the animals. Once boasting over 600 animals, the zoo was left with around 10.
Sergeant Nelson Charles of Blanding was one of the soldiers providing security for the equipment section who were cleaning the site. He was amazed at how few animals were left.
"I really expected to see more than what is here" he said "It's very strange and sad to see this."
Among the animals left were the famous lions that Saddam was rumored to feed his prisoners to and an Alaskan Brown Bear. When looters freed the bear, it killed 2 men before it could be put back in the cage.
"After all" said Lieutenant Colonel Jefferson Burton, the Battalion Commander, "the animals were mistreated and starving".
The 1457th Engineer Battalion has done many projects to help the citizens of Utah and now they are helping the citizens of Iraq. While they are humble and say it's just another day at work, they can't hide a sense of pride that has become a trademark for the Utah Engineers.
Soon there will be animals here again and the smiles from children as the zoo looks forward to opening in the coming months. It's one more thing that will help the Iraqi people enjoy a better quality of life.
It's also one more thing that was made possible by the Utah Army National Guard.