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Marines operating bulldozers among first to enter Iraq

SAFWAN HILL, Iraq—Before the artillery, before the Humvees and before the Bradleys, there were the bulldozers.

When this war's history is written, let the record show that among the first—if not the first—U.S. Marines to punch into southwestern Iraq were Warrant Officer James Ficklen and Sgt. Jamie Duffina. They rode growling bulldozers to open a passage Thursday in a 15-foot-high sand barrier at the Iraqi border with Kuwait.

Ficklen and Duffina, members of the 7th Engineering Support Battalion, shoved the sand from the hill into an anti-tank ditch on the other side, creating a bridge for tanks and personnel carriers that were waiting for the signal to invade.

"We knew we were kind of an invading force, all alone out there in our dozers, " Duffina said. "We crossed the ditch at the same time, on purpose."

The breach occurred 30 minutes before H hour, the designated beginning of the ground war Thursday.

Strong opposition to the Marine force was expected at the breach because of its proximity to Safwan Hill, a crucial Iraqi communications site that Marines believed was reinforced by more than 700 Republican Guard troops. But little more than token fire came from the small base, and no Americans were hurt.

The only notable hitch came when a military tractor tipped off a trailer on a bumpy road approaching the hill.

Ficklen isn't usually a dozer operator, but said he couldn't pass up a spot in history.

"We were done a little ahead of schedule, so we were actually waiting on the invasion force," he said. "Man, it was great watching these guys roll through."

Promptly at H hour, a dozen armored Humvees led the charge, roaring through the gap, over the sand bridge and fanning out across the plain.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.