In December, I sat down with my good friends at the 820th RED HORSE water well-drilling unit to talk about their recent mission to drill for water in Iraq. The discussion involved Technical Sergeant Ryan J. Cassell, Technical Sergeant Randy L. Blount, Staff Sergeant Kevin P. Lubrano and, new to the team, Staff Sergeant Josh Steinwart. The RED HORSE, or Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineer, is made up of 550 men and women and is responsible for rapid response to civil engineering and logistics needs around the world. The men and women of RED HORSE are capable of responding to mission-critical infrastructure needs for the United States military. The 820th’s recent mission was in conjunction with the 557th RED HORSE during Operation Enduring Freedom Iraq. See my May 2014 National Driller article on training with the 820th RED HORSE to learn more about them and their training process.
Q. How many months does it take to plan for a water well mission?
TSgt. Cassell: We were told in November that there was a need to drill in support of upcoming missions in Iraq.
SSgt. Lubrano: There were FOBs (forward operating bases) without water. We needed the water to support our troops and the Iraqi military.
Q. Providing water on base reduces risk?
TSgt. Cassell: Yes. There is a significant danger in going off base to get water. Contractors have to take trucks off base to get water, and the enemy was attempting to kidnap them for ransom, extort them, or to create access to get on base.
Q. How did you plan for the well? Did you have old well logs, a local hydrogeologist or did you plan to drill a test hole?
TSgt. Blount: We didn’t have a hydrogeologist at that time. We had some logs from the surrounding area but nothing from the FOB.
TSgt. Cassell: Our leadership from Senior Master Sergeant (Nate) Laidlaw helped us come up with a game plan before we started drilling.
TSgt. Blount: We did exploratory drilling first.
Q. How do you plan the material for a well that you don’t know the depth of?
TSgt. Cassell: We planned to drill a 1,000-foot well.
Q. Was 1,000 feet enough?
SSgt. Lubrano: We were lucky; we hit a good amount of water before 1,000 feet.
Q. How did you do the test well?
TSgt. Cassell: We recorded every change on our driller’s log. We captured samples every 5 feet. Once the hole was completed, we used a geo log tool to get a full picture of the formations from 0 to 1,000 feet.
Q. Once you found water, did you screen it or was it an open hole?
SSgt. Lubrano: We screened it.
TSgt. Blount: There were three different zones we screened to get the amount of water required for the base.
Q. What was the water quality of the finished well?
TSgt. Blount: Unfortunately, our production well ended up being very brackish, and the base will have to use a Reverse Osmosis Water Purification Unit (ROWPU) to make the water potable.
Q. Were there any restrictions on well construction?
TSgt. Cassell: Yes. We followed proper well construction as if we were drilling a well in the U.S. We spoke with the “Law,” SMSgt. Laidlaw, about proper distance from fuel tanks and other concerns. SMSgt. Laidlaw has a lot of experience throughout the world drilling water wells with RED HORSE.
Q. Was the drill rig and equipment in Iraq?
TSgt. Cassell: No. We packed up our gear and flew with it over to Iraq.
TSgt. Blount: It took four C-17 cargo planes to pack everything up.
SSgt. Lubrano: It was nearly 150 tons of equipment.
TSgt. Blount: That weight was just equipment, a GEFCO 50K trailer-mounted rig, solids control unit, 7.5-by-10 piston pump, 1350 air compressor, water truck and grouter.
SSgt. Lubrano: Yeah, the 150 tons was just equipment, no material to complete the well.
Q. Where did you fly out of?
SSgt. Lubrano: Nellis (Air Force Base). It took three days, and we had several stops along the way.
Q. Once you landed at a large mission base in Iraq, how long did it take to move the equipment to the FOB?
SSgt. Lubrano: No, we flew right to our FOB.
Q. OK, you are now on site rigged up; describe what it takes to complete a well in Iraq.
TSgt. Cassell: Good communication.
TSgt. Blount: The “Law,” SMSgt. Laidlaw, and TSgt. (Jason) Caceres created a 30-page standard operating procedure that we follow from start to finish.
Q. Did you make your target date for finishing the well?
TSgt. Blount: We were the first water well team in Iraq. There wasn’t an expectation for us to complete a well. The leadership just expected us to get the equipment in theater and ready for the next unit to come in and drill. The Law’s goal was to complete one well.
Q. How many airmen are drilling during a given shift?
TSgt. Blount: Five airmen — well four and a shift boss.
SSgt. Lubrano: Yes, we have a driller, a helper, two mud engineers and a shift boss. The mechanics help with mud, too. Well, except TSgt. Blount. He is our mechanic, and one of our best drillers.
Q. A mechanic and a driller?
TSgt. Blount: I have been around for a long time.
Q. Roughly how many wells have you drilled, TSgt. Blount?
TSgt. Blount: A dozen or so around the world.
Q. How long did it take to drill the 1,000 feet in Iraq?
TSgt. Cassell: We started on Mother’s Day and ended on Father’s Day. It was kind of rewarding. We worked with Mother Nature to get water, and got to hand over the life we provided on Father’s Day.
Q. Did you have any drilling issues?
SSgt. Lubrano: We were at the mercy of the geological formation. We had some issues with lost circulation and clay rings. We had to use some locally sourced polymers, not like the Baroid IDP products we are used to. We pumped mud off and built new several times.
Q. What type of weather did you encounter?
TSgt. Cassell: It started out in the 50s.
SSgt. Lubrano: By the end of the mission, it was 120 degrees and felt like the sun was 5 inches over our heads.
Q. How many gallons did the well produce?
TSgt. Cassell: 72,000 gallons of water per day.
Q. What is the expected consumption of water per day on an FOB?
TSgt. Cassell: When we first got there, I was taking a shower, and we ran out of water. Enough water for me to get a shower. There were many days that we went without showers. We always had bottled water.
SSgt. Lubrano: We have two water use standards: a minimal and optimal. It ranges from around 25 gallons a day per person and as little as 7 gallons a day.
Q. You walk into the chow hall for the first time after finishing the well, what is the mood among airmen and soldiers?
TSgt. Blount: Everyone is happy. The top leadership knew what it meant to have running water on base. We needed it for showers, laundry and clean-up procedures. They came out when we were pumping off and showed their gratitude.
Q. How do you handle containment while developing?
TSgt. Cassell: We made a lake. We had good containment.
TSgt. Blount: The base was tiny from what it was 10 years ago. It only had a few permanent buildings. In the past, they got water from a lake on base. But when the base became smaller, the lake was no longer safe.
Q. So if it was a big base, did you have to repair the airfield before the C-17s landed?
TSgt. Blount: No. They fixed the runway after us.
TSgt. Cassell: Yeah [half chuckle]. Our planes came in full blacked out on a partial runway. Our pilots landed several C-17s full of equipment with no lights, no towers — just a few men on the runway guiding.
Q. Did you need armed guards while drilling?
TSgt. Cassell: No, we had our weapons, and the FOB was secure.
SSgt. Lubrano: We did carry while working on the rig for safety purposes, but they were within arm’s reach.
Q. What happens if an attack occurs while drilling?
TSgt. Blount: The driller stays with a rig, brings rods off bottom and puts it into a slow circulation mode. Just like in thunderstorm situation.
Q. There were a few times you had to leave the rig because of an attack?
SSgt. Lubrano: Yeah, a couple of occasions because of indirect fire.
Q. How do you stay sharp when not drilling out of the country?
TSgt. Blount: We set up the rig and equipment and train.
TSgt. Cassell: We take on drilling missions in the U.S. We train with other units and guard units.
Q. Why did you choose RED HORSE and specifically the Water Well Unit?
TSgt. Cassell: I wanted to learn something new. I was doing road building, and I was assigned to drill a well with SMSgt. Laidlaw in Korea. After that mission, I love it. There is always something new to learn.
TSgt. Blount: For me, it was a little different. I was always working on heavy equipment. I had been in the Air Force for eight years, and one day, I opened my big mouth and said, “Sure, I could work on that.” I like working on new stuff and the challenge of understanding how it works. That’s why I stick with well drilling. There is always something new.
SSgt. Josh Steinwart: I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but once I got to Nellis, I wanted to be part of RED HORSE. I like the change and working on different equipment.
SSgt. Lubrano: RED HORSE is cool. It’s big construction, and we move fast. We are the airmen that set up a base in the theater. To get to be part of providing water and other infrastructure for our soldiers and fellow airmen is very rewarding.
TSgt. Blount: I don’t ever want to leave RED HORSE.
SSgt. Lubrano: I never want to leave RED HORSE. I love it.
Q. Any advice to a young well driller who is thinking about joining the military?
TSgt. Blount: Keep us in mind when joining.
TSgt. Cassell: We will take all the experience and expertise you got.
SSgt. Lubrano: The more, the merrier. It is always helpful to have people that understand the industry. We welcome that new knowledge base to show us how to complete a job better and faster.
All of the United States military’s combat engineers are unsung heroes. They spend their time building the foundation to every military operation and mission. As a civilian water well driller, think about that last “well from hell.” Now, think about planning to drill it 7,500 miles away from your shop. Now, load up a half dozen C-17 cargo planes with everything required to be successful. Remember, if you forget a key component to complete the well, you have to send employees out into in hostile territory to find a replacement. Would you take that job? If you are part of the RED HORSE water well-drilling engineers, your answers are, “I never want to leave” and “Love it.” Thank you for your service!