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Reef job does double duty

Hundreds of tons of cracked and crumbling culverts line a section of beach on the southern edge of Fort De Soto Park. By the end of next week, the pipe sections will lie in deep water five miles offshore, attracting Gulf of Mexico fish and recreational anglers.

Along the way, the culverts will have helped hone the skills of more than 150 U.S. Army reservists on a two-week summer training stint. The reservists are moving the culverts on ocean landing craft.

"It's good training for them because they get experience carrying heavy weight, which is what they're supposed to do. And it helps us," said Pinellas County Administrator Fred Marquis, who came up with the idea of combining the annual reservist training with the county's artificial reef program. The reserve units in the exercise are under Marquis' command as a brigadier general.

There could be worse assignments.

Reservists have reported catching redfish and snapper while towing fishing lines from the back of their landing craft as they deliver their loads to the St. Petersburg Beach reef. And spending sunny, warm days afloat on the Gulf watching dolphins play as the sun glints off the water is not half-bad, the reservists agree.

But the training is serious, and the two-week annual training session is more work than fun.

The flat metal decks of the landing craft mercilessly reflect the broiling Florida sun, said Spec. 4 Edward S. Morris.

Joining in the exercise are the 239th Transportation Company from St. Petersburg, the 143rd Transportation Company from Orlando and the 239th Transportation Company from Waycross, Ga. The reservists are spending their nights bivouacked at the north end of Fort De Soto Park.

The two weeks of carrying the huge concrete pipes to the reef site give the reservists important training in operating and navigating the boats as well as operating forklifts and other heavy equipment, said Capt. Richard Bjorkquist, commander of the St. Petersburg group.

The training might come in handy in other emergencies.

For instance, Bjorkquist said, the heavy boats could be used to help clean up after an oil spill or to transport emergency equipment in the aftermath of a hurricane.

Meanwhile, the group's first efforts at reef building already were being appreciated Thursday.

"The divers said that after the first day, a bunch of fish had gathered and started investigating (the reef)," said Lt. Barry Haslett.