EASTERN SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. - The blade on the grader operated by members of the California National Guard is nearly as wide as the road itself. Buffered on one side by a hill, on the other side of the passageway is a precipitous drop-off, the bottom some 30, 40 feet down the canyon. Call it nerve-wracking, call it harrowing. These guys call it a day’s work.
In addition to filling discovered tunnels, repairing portions of damaged border fencing or digging drainage ditches, the engineer soldiers of Joint Task Force Domestic Support-Counterdrug have an oft called upon skill set: rehabilitating portions of back-country road used by agents of U.S. Customs and Border Protection who patrol the U.S.-Mexico border.
On Jan. 22, four such soldiers of the task force were deep in the switchbacks near the peak of Otay Mountain repairing roads - 100 painstaking feet at a time.
“The work my guys do out here make the roads safer, easier to access and allow for a faster response by Border Patrol,” explained 1st Sgt. Frank Guizar.
The day starts the night before. With a two-hour turn around time between where the guys load up their raw material and the work site, time is of the essence.
“We’ll typically prepare a load of Class 2 gravel in the dump trucks for the next day as one of our last tasks of each day,” explained noncommissioned officer in charge Staff Sgt. Joseph Camellari.
As with everything along these roads that cut up and down the mountain, the mix has to be just right.
“You really only get one chance at this,” said Staff Sgt. Peter Spackman of National City, Calif. “Too dry and it separates once it hits the roads … too wet and you’ll never get it out of the dump-trucks.”
Before the crew can even begin working on the road, a grader has to smooth down the surface, knock loose any large rocks and prep it to take the gravel. One by one the dump trucks drop their cargo of gravel infused with Soiltac—a polymer-based emulsion used primarily to stabilize soil from dust and erosion.
“It looks like Elmer’s glue, it smells like Elmer’s glue, it even feels like Elmer’s glue,” said San Diego resident, Staff Sgt. Hillery Conedy, a heavy equipment operator with the task force.
“We like to refer to it as Bondo for the road,” added Camellari.
Once the gravel is laid down, the grader comes through again, smoothing down the rough patches. The final step—tamping down the gravel—is accomplished as Border Patrol agents spend countless hours crossing back and forth, their eyes facing south.
There’s only one problem—these types of roads need constant rehabilitation.
“At least once a year we’re out here repairing these roads,” said Spackman.
The once a year mantra assumes a January rain doesn’t flood out the road, or runoff from the mountain doesn’t wash it out.
“We do regular rehabilitation of the roads,” said Camellari, “but if Border Patrol identifies a stretch of road that needs work for whatever reason, we’ll do it.”
Even as budget constraints reduce Camellari’s resources and ability to take on the never ending list of projects, the hard-set noncommissioned officer makes one thing exceptionally clear, “Safety is our top priority—safety for my soldiers … in everything we do … and the safety of the agents we’re out here helping with the work we do.”
Wrapping up the day, heading back to his logistics base on Naval Air Station North Island near San Diego, Guizar puts the exclamation on Camellari’s point.
“When we started working out here, this road was nothing more than a goat trail,” he said. “A narrow, treacherous goat trail. The work my guys have done out here has made it safer for Border Patrol as they protect us.”