NEAR SINJAR, Iraq -- A long, sandy berm is all that separates the flat, empty border between northwestern Iraq and Syria.
But soldiers with the 276th Engineer Battalion from the Virginia National Guard are building 15 rudimentary forts that they say will help seal the porous border.
"There was nothing out here," said the Company A commander, Capt. Jonathan Gray, who is in charge of the project which spans nearly 150 miles.
The forts serve as tiny footholds for the fledgling Iraqi border patrol in an area where smugglers are common. U.S. officials have said anti-coalition foreign fighters, supplies and money have been flowing across Iraq's open borders.
For the soldiers, the project was a break from their daily exposure to makeshift bombs and city fighting.
"We went from an urban environment to a rural environment where our primary mission was not combat objectives," said Spc. Matthew Gowin, from Mechanicsville, Va., who became a plumber for the project. "It turned out better than I thought it would."
"Engineers love to leave something behind," said Lt. Col. Edward Morgan, the battalion commander. "In a sense this will be our little mark."
Fortified borders will help Iraq maintain control of its own country and help reduce risks from foreign fighters to servicemembers there.
The forts consist of a perimeter with a tower and conex living area. Personnel will have running water, electricity, heat and air conditioning -- "All the basic life support," Gray said.
The project added fortifications to the large stretches between a few existing border posts. They're temporary, built to last about a year, by which time Iraq should have new forts built.
It took an orchestrated effort to move the conexes and heavy construction equipment two hours into the desert, while maintaining security.
"You can't hide that on the highways from the bad guys," Morgan said.
"That was the hardest part, loading and unloading," said Sgt. Timothy D. Atkins, attached to Company A, and a land surveyor in his civilian life in Mechanicsville. "It's a major endeavor to push that much stuff and do it as fast as we were, and leapfrog from site to site."
For some soldiers, the project was the third trip to the border. The support platoon fortified the berm in the spring, returned in August to repair the existing forts and again in October for the project.
They had to beg and borrow enough equipment for the job.
"That coordination took months. The actual mission took like 16 days," said Sgt. James Timberlake, support platoon sergeant from Powhatan, Va.
"Instead of just pushing a dirt pile for 200 miles, [you] start from nothing and have a complete project," he said.
"It was a lot different than you see on the news," Gowin said. "We had limited contact with the people in the past."
The project had its share of difficulties, among them drastic variations in temperature, desert creepy crawlies and no facilities. It was pure field living, down to the sandstorm that ruined a meal.
"Nothing but scorpions and rats" out there, Atkins said.
But they enjoyed it. Working on the project was like a camping trip and gave them a chance to build, the soldiers said.
"I never even knew there were that many stars," Atkins said. "It was definitely a good experience being out there."
The job also gives them a sense "that this will make a difference," Atkins said. "If it works, they could stop insurgents entering the country."
Pvt. Chris Perry, from Midlothian, Va., joined the company right before the project began, his first for the Army. At the time, he was reading a book written before the war that stressed the importance of fortifying the border with Syria.
"I think it's pretty vital that we shut down that border," Perry said. "I'm glad to be a part of it."
By Juliana Gittler
Stars and Stripes, European Edition