By Ryan G.
A combat engineer is, for all practical purposes, an infantryman with demolition capabilities, as well as a plethora of other tools to help his mission of aiding troop mobility, countering enemy mobility, and increasing overall survivablity for operational forces. Mobility tasks may include setting up explosive charges to breach obstacles or buildings, while counter mobility operations may entail setting up concertina wire fences or creating minefields. Other tasks that a combat engineer may undertake can be patrolling roadways and operational zones, and locating, identifying and eliminating IEDs. Using this skill set to increase troop survivability is the most common role that US Army combat engineers have been tasked with during the GWOT (Global War On Terror).
The combat engineer we’re interviewing today was deployed to Northeastern Syria in 2019. For OPSEC reasons, his answers are quite brief, but this is a good window into the life of a conventional US Army soldier in a mission infamous for its SOF-heavy nature.
What year were you deployed to Syria?
I was deployed to Syria in 2019.
What unit were you deployed with?
I was deployed with the 961st Engineer Battalion.
How long were you in Syria?
I was there for 2 months before I was moved over to Iraq. We got sent back when it was announced that the U.S. was beginning to pull out of Syria.
Where in Syria were you deployed?
Our unit operated primarily out of the Kobane Landing Zone and Al Quim Landing.
Did you have any interactions with local forces?
Yes; I obviously interacted quite frequently with fighters from the YPG, YPJ, SDF, and even the PKK as well.
What threats were US forces primarily concerned with in Syria?
ISIS was definitely considered the primary threat to US forces during my deployment.
What was the perception of Turkish military operations in the country?
It was understood that the Turks were only a real threat to the YPG and SDF, but we didn’t consider the TAF to be a real threat to us.
How did you feel about the culture and society of the DFNS/Rojava?
I like the Kurds. They are some of the most friendly people in the Middle East, and they treated us very well during my deployment.
What was the morale like within the unit?
It was not very good, our Lieutenant was a micromanager and constantly messed things up while our unit was on patrol.
How were you treated by local forces and civilians?
They treated us very well and were quite friendly, I received many gifts, food, and accessories. They were always fascinated with my M249 SAW.
What was the closest the unit came to a contact, if there was such experience?
Our only contact was when our Lieutenant was hit by an IED on patrol.
What’s it like being in a conventional unit in such a SOF dominant mission?
The SOF guys were way more chill than the 101st Airborne guys who were also there, LCF (Lafarge Cement Factory, in northern Ar-Raqqa Province) was a checkpoint during one patrol, we stopped to refuel and got to meet some of 5th Special Forces Group. LCF was the primary SOF FOB in Syria.
Did you ever come in contact with the SAA or any other pro-Assad regime forces?
We never came into contact with them, 3rd Special Forces Group was responsible for interactions with those guys.
What are your thoughts on Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, and what did you hear about them during your deployment?
HTS was growing at an enormous rate when I was there. We had heard about their presence in Idlib Province, at the time they were more of a threat than the Islamic State to many people.
What are your thoughts on the US pull out?
Leaving the the north I agree with because it’s not our fight in my opinion, that’s between the Kurds and Turkey. I do think that Southern Syria needs to stay occupied since every time US forces are pulled out there is another attack.
What were your living quarters like?
Not bad, not good, it was a pretty standard building that had 2-3 bunks inside with a chimney downstairs.
Do you have a favorite part of your time in Syria?
I made the best of it, but not really, it was pretty much the same thing every day.
What did your unit do in Syria?
We did route clearance for about a month, then SECFOR (security duty) at Kobane Landing Zone, which was spent mostly just standing in a tower with either my M249 or a .50 cal.
Do you have any stories or anything else people should know?
Not really, it’s hard to convey how deployed life is as it’s hard to understand unless you’ve personally experienced it. The whole deployment experience can only really be felt by people who have been there and done it.