HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan --
It’s 7 o’clock on a Sunday night. The sky is pitch black, and it is starting to rain again. The gunner strains his eyes to look for any moving figures illuminated by the frequent flashes of lightning across the sky.
Only a few days ago, it was a sunny morning when the combat engineers of 2nd Platoon, Alpha Company, 9th Engineer Support Battalion, 1st Marine Logistics Group (Forward), loaded up their trucks. Their mission was to support a few isolated patrol bases manned by soldiers from the Republic of Georgia.
After a few hours of driving, the platoon arrived at their first destination, Patrol Base Enguri, Feb. 14. The Marines immediately conducted a site survey to determine how much structural reinforcement the base required. Site surveys are done prior to the actual construction to determine what kind and how much material will be needed. When the survey is completed, a support unit will go in later with the necessary equipment and complete the construction project.
Once the survey was complete, the convoy pressed on to PB Shukvani where the Marines refueled the vehicles and prepared their supplies for the next task.
The following day, the group set out for PB Ertoba. Just outside the perimeter of the small, Georgian base, the Marines began to build a blast mitigation pit.
The pit is designed to allow explosive ordnance technicians the ability to safely investigate any ordnance they find. Once an explosive is rendered safe, EOD personnel place it in the pit and send in a robot to analyze the bomb’s characteristics and gain intelligence. In case of an explosion, the pit retains the blast ensuring the safety of the EOD technicians.
Using Hesco barriers, the combat engineers set up a 20-foot-by-20-foot perimeter. Hesco barriers are made with a collapsible wire mesh. Each individual cell has four sides lined with a heavy-duty felt and is filled with sand. The cells are connected to create different sized perimeters that create a bullet-resistant structure. The Marines were allotted 48 hours to complete the pit, but after only 5 hours the job was done.
“We have years of experience between all of us,” said Sgt. Joseph Ramey, a combat engineer with 2nd Plt., Alpha Co., 9th ESB, 1st MLG (Fwd). “We know what we’re doing and we’re ready to get the task at hand completed and move on to the next mission.”
The next mission was to head a few miles north and build two indirect fire bunkers at PB Didgori. Much like a blast mitigation pit, IDF bunkers are built the same way; however, a roof is added to provide overhead protection from incoming rounds.
Cold air and cloudy skies moved in as the convoy maneuvered through steep, rocky hills to get to the site. Exiting their vehicles, the Marines jumped into knee-deep mud and got to work. Ignoring the freezing rain, the team continued their work into dark hours of the night.
“I used to work with my dad in these conditions, so it kind of brought me back home,” said Lance Cpl. Michael Duran, a combat engineer with 2nd Plt., Alpha Co., 9th ESB, 1st MLG (Fwd). “My job is to build anything that these guys outside the wire need. This particular mission increases the safety of the people living on these patrol bases.”
Once the Hesco perimeter was set up, the roof construction began. Using 2-by-4 planks, the engineers set up a wooden foundation on top of the 7-foot Hesco barriers. On top of the foundation, 2-foot Hesco barriers were filled with more sand to create the protective roof.
“Construction is my favorite part of this job,” said Duran, 20, from Baldwin Park, Calif. “I don’t just enjoy it; I really have fun with it. When they are telling us how something is going to be set up, I can already picture it in my mind.”
Despite the harsh weather, the team was still able to complete their mission early. At the end of the third day at PB Didgori, the Marines began their return trip.
When the convoy left for PB Didgori, the skies were clear and the dry desert brought few difficulties driving across the terrain. After a few days of rain, though, the dry desert turned into an impassible mud bath for the vehicles as they headed back home. The lightning storm frequently lit up a purple sky as the Marines struggled to pull out stuck vehicles. It soon became clear that travel couldn’t continue until morning. The gunners took turns throughout the night posting security for the stranded group.
With the sunrise, the convoy continued. Each vehicle pressed through the mud successfully. At the bottom of the hill leading up to PB Ertoba, what once had been a dry bed was now a rushing river. Using heavy machinery that had been used earlier to fill Hesco barriers, the combat engineers built a land bridge that finally got them across the river and past their final challenge.
The platoon was given 10 days to complete all their tasks. Despite multiple obstacles and bad weather, the platoon was able to use their engineering skills to adapt and overcome. The group arrived back at Camp Leatherneck on the seventh day of their mission.
“We work well together,” said Ramey. “It’s just that simple.”