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"You've Got Mail" in the middle of nowhere;6th ESB Marines provide communications for every situation

18 Apr 2003 | Cpl. Jeff Hawk

The last time coalition forces fought here, "e-mail" didn't exist. Twelve years later, Marines with 6th Engineer Support Battalion are providing Internet access, a secured computer network and an array of other communication services to meet Marines needs in the middle of the desert. Deployed for the first time as a battalion, 6th ESB drew Marines from its companies based in Wilmington, Del; Phoenix, Ariz; Peoria, Ill; Bakersfield, Calif.; Battlecreek, Mich.; and Portland and South Bend, Ore., to form a diverse communications platoon rich with experience. The diversity brings "a lot of different points of view to the table," says Cpl. Robert Gulley, 24, a radio technician from Vancouver, Wash. "We take all that experience and fix problems instead of letting our differences 'be' the problem." The platoon has the daunting task of communicating with 6th ESB Marines scattered across 12 sites. This includes supporting sites along nearly 90 desolate miles of the battalion's expeditionary fuel line and at its water purification station. The platoon is also keeping communication with 6th ESB Marines stationed at remote locations at the front edge of the battlefield nearly 180 miles away. To keep everyone connected, the Marines are employing every trick in the bag. "We're using everything we have," says Cpl. Joseph Neeld, 22, a ground radio repair technician from Dundee, Ore. That includes high-speed services like the military's secret Internet called SIPERNET. During The Gulf War, the SIPERNET did not exist in its current form and computer network communication was a limited resource typically available only at the regimental level, says Master Sgt. Michael Eschete, 42, the platoon's communications chief. In the mid-90s, the Mark-142 communications vehicle brought "broadband capability to the battalion level," says Eschete. Now, battalion commanders and staff routinely use SIPERNET to send and receive intelligence updates, mapping information, secret message traffic and other classified information. "Before, all communication was done over radio and telephone," says 21-year-old Cpl. Robert Catron, a data technician from Phoenix, Ariz. "Now, all that information is at the user's fingertips when he gets onto the secured network. It's like the Internet but it's independent." Keeping the unit's two network servers cool and consistently powered in the desert is a primary concern, adds Catron.The platoon is also making the commercial Internet, or NIPERNET, available to Marines. "We're running a service that allows Marines to access their e-mail and send messages home," says Catron. On occasion, the platoon is also making its iridium cell phones available to Marines for two-minute morale calls back to the States.For communications in-theater, the Marines rely on very high frequency (VHF) and high frequency (HF) radio. Line-of-sight VHF radio links stations 20 to 30 miles from the battalion headquarters. A re-transmission site along the battalion's 60-mile fuel line allows the northernmost fuel line stations to send and receive radio transmissions back to base. Talking to units located further away proved challenging. "We were having problems getting a good long shot" using HF communications, says Gulley. HF waves bounce from the Ionosphere to the ground until they reach their receiving antenna. But in the desert here, where the soil contains strong magnetic qualities, the radio waves sink into the ground. The desert floor "likes to swallow up radio frequencies," says Gulley. A standard field antenna wouldn't work, so the Marines put their collective knowledge to work and came up with an "asterisk-shaped reflective pattern" antenna, says Gulley. Acting like a mirror on the desert floor, the specially designed antenna "forces the signal to go away from the ground and bounce off the E and F layers of the Ionosphere," says Gulley. The Marines also had to apply some low-tech solutions to environmental circumstances. "There's a low water table here, so we have to create a false water table," says Neeld. That involves simply adding salty water to grounding cable stakes. "The salt and water helps ground the cable" and protects sensitive equipment against unexpected power surges, he says. Marines water the ground stakes twice a day like houseplants. For day-to-day communications, Marines in the field still rely heavily on the telephone. 6th ESB is equipped with microwave multiplexing (MUX) and super multiplexing FCC-100 equipment. The FCC-100 combines SIPERNET, NIPERNET and telephone signals into one signal and sends it to the MUX equipment. MUX transmits a microwave, or broadband, signal up to 35 miles to a receiving MUX station. The technology "eliminates" the need for power lines and phone cables, says Sgt. Frederick Schorer, a 25-year-old microwave equipment operator from Claremore, Okla. "It provides invisible phone and Internet service in the middle of nowhere," he says. All the technology in the world is useless without the knowledge to operate it. And Marines here have proven that they possess the know-how to handle challenges as they arise on the battlefield. "We work as a family," says Eschete, a 25-year Marine Corps communications veteran. "This is the best communications platoon I've worked with. They have the desire to do right and the ability to absorb and implement the things they learn."
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1st Marine Logistics Group