I sat in the back of a van that bounced into a remote training base in Northern Syria. Like many of my Kurdish hosts, I was technically in the country illegally after being smuggled in from adjacent Kurdistan. It was 2014 and the war was young, none of us knowing how much bloodshed was still to come. We parked our vehicles and stepped out onto what turned out to be a rail yard. At the time, I passed between the train cars, stepping over the rail, and walked into the Kurdish YPG training base without giving the railroad a second thought.

Little did I know of the importance of the railroad running through Syria and Iraq, and the critical rail junction that existed at the training base I had arrived at near Qamishlo, Syria which connects to Mosul, Iraq.

Syrian rail near Qamishlo. (picture courtesy of the author)

The birth of rail in Syria and Iraq can be traced back to the late 1800’s as Germany envisioned a rail line linking Baghdad (and ultimately Basra on the Persian Gulf) with Berlin. This would have provided a way for the European power to project force, influence, and economic power into the Arabian peninsula. Had this project been completed, it could have fed the Prussian war machine with an endless supply of oil. Meanwhile, the proud British Navy had always maintained dominance at sea. This fact would be of little use once Germany secured a land bridge into the Middle East.

The first Iraqi rail line opened in 1914, linking Baghdad and Samarra. The British military was invested in stopping the railroad upon the onset of World War One and after the war, the Brits remained and continued to improve Iraq’s rail infrastructure linking Baghdad and Basra. In subsequent decades Iraqi rail carried both freight and passengers. During the Saddam years, the railroad was maintained and some small improvements made. During the Gulf War and again during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the railroads were shut down. During the Gulf the rail line was intentionally disabled, but during OIF it was left intact for later use. Nonetheless, during the American occupation the railroad fell into disuse and disrepair. Parts of it were still running, but needed a lot of work.

By 2006, the US Army was looking for a way out of Iraq. In the power vacuum created by the removal of Saddam, a full-blown insurgency had broken out with hundreds of factions battling for control over various parts of the country. US Special Operations Forces were deployed to take out High Value Targets and conventional units attempted to stabilize problematic neighborhoods, but it was all just a band-aid on the problem. Long term solutions to the drivers of the insurgency could be addressed by improving the economy. Between the HVT strikes and economic improvement, the insurgency would hopefully die down and provide an opening for America to exit stage right.

Soldiers with Company A, 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Advise and Assist Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, United States Division – Center, search railroad tracks during a patrol July 9, 2011 in the vicinity of Camp Taji, Iraq. These patrols help deter violent extremist networks who occasionally attempt to launch such attacks using mortars and rockets from areas near bases. (Photo by: Spc. William A. Joeckel, 2nd AAB, 1st Inf. Div., USD-C) (Courtesy of DVIDS)

This was where a small group of US Army railroaders came into play. Major Scott Meyer interviewed for a job at a railroad unit stateside and soon found himself attending civilian rail schools as an 88D, a rail officer. He went to train master and yard master school, and many 29-day tours several times a year doing “forts and ports” unloading vessels, uploading train cars, and then sending them on their way. Most of these stateside tours saw Meyer overseeing the shipping of ammunition. Meyer worked alongside reservists who were professional railroaders in their day job. “All they did was exchange their blue coveralls for their green coveralls,” Meyer explained, talking about how much he learned from the experienced sergeants in his unit. He also handled Federal Military Sales like shipping Harpoon missiles to Pakistan and torpedoes to Israel.

Meyer was deployed as a tactical intelligence officer working on counter-IED issues since he was an engineer and did a survey of bridges and culverts from Iraq all the way back to Turkey. On his second deployment, Meyer found himself doing his real job as an Army railroader. Multi-National Corps-Iraq (MNC-I) under General Petraeus requested Meyer to work on rail. In 2005, a small assessment team from the Army had been deployed to do a survey of Iraqi rail and since that time, they had been backfilled with contractors who were supposed to keep the railroad running along with some Army Corps of Engineers and a small British contingent.

In 2005, the Army had re-built the rail going into Camp Speicher but then in 2006 the Army units stationed on the base pulled up all the rail and destroyed it for force protection issues thinking that the enemy could put an IED on a train and run it into the base. It would have been a simple matter to disable a switch or put a de-railer on the tracks. In Al Qaim the Iraqis had one of the biggest rail maintenance facilities in the Middle East. The US Army ruined it, pushing machines and tools out the door, filling in inspection pits, dumping rail road ties everywhere, and generally making a mess so they could park their Humvees in the warehouse. For these reasons, Meyer suggested creating 5-6 man train unit in Iraq to stop the Army from tearing up hundreds of thousands of dollars of rail work that the American tax payer had paid for. With a frequent turn over as units rotated in and out of Iraq, there was a serious problem in maintaining continuity.