LOGISTICAL SUPPORT AREA VIPER, Iraq -- A historic effort by Marine bulk fuelers here kept the coalition's "shock and awe" campaign from turning into "sputter and stall." Military planners tasked 6th Engineer Support Battalion, 4th Force Service Support Group, with fueling coalition forces surging forward during the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Deployed as a whole for the first time, the reserve bulk liquids-designated battalion assembled a 60-mile-long expeditionary fuel line six times longer than any other fuel line ever attempted in Marine Corps history.
The line, called a "hose reel system," runs from a 6-million-plus gallon U.S. Army bulk fuel farm in Kuwait to a location deep inside Iraqi territory where the battalion built its own 1.2 million gallon fuel farm. The Marines installed the system in a combat zone in three days -- half the allotted time -- during the area's worst sandstorm in 20 years. The mission's success validated the effectiveness of the Corps' expeditionary fuel system, which had never seen use during combat.
"No one thought it would work but we made it work," says Lt Col. Roger Machut, commanding officer, 6th ESB. It had to work or rapidly advancing forces would have eventually ground to a halt. Marines are fueling the entire coalition as the Army works to set up its system in Iraq nearly three weeks into the conflict. "We're the only fuel in town. It's a theater asset," says Machut.
The simple, expeditionary system fits Marine get-up-and-go. Bulk fuel teams pull 6-inch rubber hoses off large, truck-loaded spools like fishing line from a reel. Seventeen "booster" stations spaced 3.5 miles apart and equipped with two 600 gallons per minute pumps and two 20,000 gallon fuel bladders kick fuel northward at a rate of 500 gpm. The hose connecting the stations lies in a V-shaped ditch to protect it from military and civilian traffic.
Still, bulk fuel teams must be ready to rapidly respond to breaks as camels, combat tanks and everything in-between crisscross the line daily. Each station stores 20,000 gallons of fuel to pump in case of a break, giving crews 33 minutes to fix the problem before it causes a "serious disruption," says Machut. The bulk fuel companies created mobile contact teams to respond quickly. "Because we were laying such a long line, we decided it would be a good idea to have a mobile unit ready to repair the line," says Phoenix-based reservist Sgt. Davin Jader, 24, bulk fuel chief, Bulk Fuel Company Charlie, 6th ESB, who mans one of the teams.
To date, there has been "no pause in putting fuel forward," says Maj. Steve Weintraub, commanding officer, Bulk Fuel Company Charlie, 6th ESB, from Phoenix. In fact, pumping rates and volumes have exceeded battalion expectations. Original projections set the rate at 320 gpm and 450,000 gallons per day. The as-built system is averaging 500 gpm and has pumped as much as 671,000 gallons per day. It operates 20 hours a day with a four-hour maintenance period.
The key to the system's fast assembly is "simultaneous operations and coordination," says Machut. Mission planners split the line's construction between two companies, each taking responsibility of 30 miles of hose reel. "It's not rocket science, but everyone has to know their jobs," says Weintraub. Marines rehearsed laying the line for a month in Kuwait, running installation sequences to Swiss-watch perfection and innovating faster ways to connect the line. "There's not a lot written about hose reel line installation. We're creating field S-O-Ps for this environment," says Weintraub.
When Marines struggled to fit rubber hose over sand-dusted couplers, someone suggested lubing them with a bit of lip balm. It worked. Marines loaded empty plastic pill bottles with grease and designated one Marine per team to lube the couplers with a rifle cleaning brush during assembly. Designated Marines concentrated on putting the booster stations together. "We practiced how long it takes to set up a booster station and how many Marines it takes," says Weintraub. Even in the pitch-blackness of a desert night, the assembly ran like clockwork.
But the mission was not without its challenges. The party reconnoitering the route found their service road to be little more than a maintenance trail. In the desert where heavy traffic pulverizes sand to deep, fine talc that sinks trucks tires like marbles in flour, the logistics of transporting gear to awaiting installers proved frustrating. "The road was almost un-trafficable," says Weintraub. Marines used graders to literally "cut a path through the desert," he says.
Still, Logistic Vehicle Support trucks got stuck; local lift truck vendors got stuck; and Marines had to turn to Medium Transport Vehicle Replacement trucks as the primary lift asset. At times, Marine assemblers outpaced the supplies available, but in the end, they cut the allotted installation time from six days to three. "These Marines were so ready to go out and accomplish the mission that they exploded when we got started," says Weintraub. "The Marines excelled beyond what we thought they could do."
The two installation companies met up at a mid-point designated "The Golden Spike" after the historic Promontory Point, Utah, transcontinental railroad link up. Bulk Fuel Company Charlie took on the first 30-mile stretch while Camp Pendleton, Calif.-based Bulk Fuel Company, 7th ESB, assembled the northern 30 miles. Bulk Fuel Company, 7th ESB attached to 6th ESB as Delta Company for the hose reel mission. During the line's assembly, Bulk Fuel Company Alpha simultaneously built a 1.2 million gallon fuel farm at the line's northern tip to distribute fuel to forward forces. "We had it up and functional in 24 hours," says 21-year-old Lance Cpl. Bruno Heller, Bulk Fuel Company Alpha bulk fuel specialist from Bakersfield, Calif. The farm has serviced everything from tanks to 70s-era U.S. Army two-and-a-half ton trucks, says Heller. And there's little waiting. "We did a 36-vehicle convoy in 20 minutes yesterday," says Lance Cpl. Antoinette Lindsay, 21, bulk fuel specialist, Bulk Fuel Company Alpha, West Hollywood, Calif.
The farm will nearly double in capacity soon, says Machut. The Army supplies fuel to the Marine system from its installations in Kuwait. The Corps recently assembled another 30-mile line from its fuel farm to a northern Army camp.
Deployed as a battalion with eight companies on deck, 6th ESB now comprises the second largest Marine Corps battalion. The "bulk liquids battalion" is not only fueling forces, it's keeping desert thirsts quenched with volumes of purified water.
With the hose reel line down, the battalion is beefing up its security along the valuable asset. Bulk fuel Marines regularly check the line and man positions around the booster stations. Machut credits the mission's success to enlisted Marines. "It's NCO leadership all the way," he says.
Reserve Lance Cpl. Mike Koole, 20, a bulk fuel specialist from Phoenix, says the mission made him realize the essential role bulk fuel Marines play in combat. Says Koole: "The division can only go as fast as the fuel and supply lines behind it. The quicker we can get the fuel to them, the quicker they can move forward and end this conflict."