CAMP SOLOMON ISLAND, Kuwait -- Working long hours is nothing new to Marine mechanics. But working long hours during blinding sandstorms in 110-plus degree weather under combat conditions can test anyone's ability and dedication.
Fortunately for coalition forces, Marines with 6th Engineering Support Bn passed that test with flying colors and kept vehicles rolling during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
At the battalion's main camp - Logistical Supply Area Camp Viper in the southern Iraqi desert - mechanics "managed to keep an 85 percent vehicle readiness" under difficult supply conditions, said Sgt. Jerry Miller, 32, floor chief, Engineer Support Company. 6th ESB's northern shop at Logistical Supply Area Camp Chesty maintained a 92 percent vehicle readiness, he added.
Miller and roughly 20 other reserve Marines from Folsom, Pa.-based Bridge Co Bravo attached to 6th ESB's maintenance platoon to help facilitate the battalion's demanding logistics requirements.
Designated as 1st Force Service Support Group's bulk-liquids battalion, 6th ESB was charged with fueling coalition forces as they raced northward through Iraq. They also supplied purified water to the Corps' desert and urban encampments.
In fact, the battalion established a dozen fuel and water points across southern Iraq, including sites in or near Baghdad, Nasariyah, Kut, and Diwaniyah. Since early February, seventy-three motor transport drivers hauled the gear and personnel necessary to operate those sites more than 286,000 miles with roughly 300 vehicles.
But the more than 200 successful convoys would not have rolled without the diligence of the battalion's mechanics. The work was "heavy and demanding," said Sgt. Charles Gorman, 27, motor transport section head, ESC, 6th ESB.
Mechanics completed more than 250 equipment repair orders and answered more than 150 requests to perform on-site repairs or recoveries for mechanically broken down or otherwise stranded vehicles.
GySgt. Curtis Howard, ESC's 35-year-old maintenance management chief, from Detroit, Mich., called the number of "contact runs" or service calls, "extremely high." "I may have seen half that number in my entire career," said Howard, a 19-year Marine veteran.
"Both heavy equipment and motor transport [mechanics] did exceptional work," added Gorman, a Portland, Ore. reservist. Utility mechanics alone completed 120 equipment repair orders and answered 62 contact runs to keep the battalions generators and water purification units up and running. Without them, the vital fuel and water supply for coalition forces may have been interrupted.
Credit also goes to vehicle recovery operators who recovered every single broken-down or sand-stuck vehicle. Yanking vehicles out the Iraqi desert's deep, talc-fine sand occasionally required innovative measures.
Early Easter Sunday morning, Sgt. Juan Belmontes, a 24-year-old vehicle recovery operator from Chicago, answered a call to recover a 25-ton truck crane that had become stranded along 6th ESB's desert fuel line. Belmontes tried pulling the sand-trapped crane out but its weight caused the wrecker to jerk sideways, not forward.
So Belmontes adapted by nudging the rear of his wrecker against the crane's tailgate. Placing his wrecker in reverse, Belmontes said he was able to "push the crane thirteen miles through the sand" to within a mile of the unit's maintenance shop. The whole evolution took 14 hours at speeds no greater than eight miles an hour, but Belmontes accomplished the mission.
The harsh conditions and heavy workload seemed to "make the Marines shine," said SSgt. Jason Holecheck, 29, motor transport chief, who ran the Camp Chesty shop for ESC. "This is the best way to train because you have to think and use ingenuity," added the Byron Center, Mich., resident. "For a lot of the reservists, it was a big eye-opener."
And now that the experience has opened their eyes to the demands placed upon a combat mechanic, many will take home a new appreciation and understanding of their role in the Corps.
Said Miller: "We took inexperienced Marines and turned them into good mechanics and good troubleshooters."