For Troops, This Road Is Not a Drill

Special to The Times

Before the Army deploys troops to Iraq or Afghanistan, they are often sent to Ft. Irwin in the Mojave Desert to get combat-ready. And before traffic arrives on base, it rumbles down Ft. Irwin Road, past 42 white wooden crosses.

The memorials are not for those who have paid the ultimate price in combat, but for the lives lost along the road since the early 1980s.

Poor driving conditions mean that soldiers willing to die for their country sometimes meet their fate on the way to or from work, a tragedy all the more poignant in a time of war.

"We have a hard time when a soldier or a family member dies on that road," said Ft. Irwin spokesman Capt. Dan Gannod.

"An accident stings a little bit more because you know it could have been avoided if we had a better road. Those crosses are a reminder played over and over: drive slowly, drive safe."

After about four years of planning, the Army and San Bernardino County officials are hoping to provide a safer road for the more than 2,500 soldiers and civilians who drive the 31-mile, two-lane stretch from Interstate 15 to the base every day.

With right-of-way issues along the roadside nearly resolved, work on a $16-million upgrade is to begin in late August or early September. The project will take about a year to complete, officials say.

The problems with the road, known around Ft. Irwin as the "longest cul-de-sac in the world," are many, according to Mickey Quillman, the base's natural resources manager and the Army civilian employee in charge of the repairs.

"It's very old and in a sad state of repair," he said, adding that the road has only two feet of blacktop on either shoulder and just one passing lane, at Jackhammer Pass in the Calico Mountains.

The lack of a paved shoulder has proved to be the most dangerous problem with the road, Quillman said. Often, because of the monotonous desert scenery, drivers exceed the 55-mph speed limit and swerve off the pavement.

Add to that equation an exhausted soldier who has just spent two weeks of a 26-day training cycle roughing it in the desert and you have a dangerous situation.

"When you hit sand at 70 mph, you're going to roll," said Quillman, who added that the highway averages two rollover accidents a month.

Potholes, which for years have been patched with loose gravel, are another drawback to driving the road.

"Most of us who do the commute go through a lot of windshields," said Rick Martin, a civilian employee who drives in from Apple Valley.

Although it will continue to be a two-lane highway, construction plans include adding paved shoulders and passing lanes in five more places so drivers can safely pass slower-moving military vehicles.

There will also be "rumble strips" to alert woozy drivers who stray from the roadway, said Algis Marciuska, the county engineer in charge of the project.

The construction will be funded by the Department of Defense.

A delay in obtaining federal approval of an environmental assessment of the project has put repairs more than a year behind schedule. At issue was the impact of construction on the habitat of the endangered desert tortoise.

To accommodate the tortoise, the 22 1/2-mile portion of the road on county land will be lined with "turtle fencing" and have several under-crossings to prevent the reptiles from being smashed on the road. Now about half a dozen tortoises are struck and killed every year.

The fencing is expected to cost about $1.6 million, Marciuska said.

The memorial crosses add to a sense of urgency to protect soldiers during wartime and make the road repairs a high priority, Quillman said.

Since January, two soldiers and one civilian have died along the roadway.

"This construction project has interest all the way up to the Pentagon," Quillman said. "Everybody's anxious for it to begin."

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