CAMP SOLOMON ISLAND, Kuwait -- Reservists with the Corps' second largest battalion here began their long journey home late May. The departure of the unit's advanced party May 20 marked the beginning of a redeployment that will return the reserve battalion's ten companies and roughly 1,700 Marines and sailors to twelve locations through out the United States by late June. Deployed for the first time as a complete battalion, 6th ESB pulled together units, literally, from sea to shining sea, including reserve sites in Wilmington, Del.; Portland, Ore.; Green Bay, Wis.; and Tucson, Ariz.
"The fact that we were deployed as a battalion is highly significant," said reserve LtCol. Roger Machut, 6th ESB's commander and a Chicago-based civil engineer. For Operation Iraqi Freedom, the bulk-liquids designated battalion provided fuel and water for rapidly advancing coalition forces.
6th ESB picked up water purification and bulk fuel assets from other Marine Corps engineering battalions and loaned its bridging assets out to 8th ESB - designated as the Corps' wartime bridge-building battalion. Those units returned to 6th ESB and now are either in Kuwait awaiting departure back to the States, or, like Bridge Co Bravo from Folsom, Penn., have already left. 6th ESB units returning to the States first stop in Camp Pendleton, Calif., before traveling to their respective reserve centers for de-mobilization.
The reservists return with several accomplishments under their collective belt. Bulk fuelers deployed the longest expeditionary fuel line system ever assembled by Marines under combat conditions. Called a "hose reel system," the 6-in.-dia., fire hose-like fuel line initially stretched 60 miles from a U.S. Army fuel farm in Kuwait to a 1.2 million gal. Marine Corps fuel farm in the southern Iraqi desert. Marines later added another 30-mile line that fed a northern U.S. Army site.
The mission's success validated the Marine Corps' hose reel system, which proved "exceedingly quick" to assemble and "mobile," said CWO4 Mitch Wentzel, 6th ESB's 39-year-old battalion fuel officer from Phoenix. "I can tailor it to the mission," he added.
Bulk fuelers built the fuel farm and assembled the fuel line days ahead of schedule despite intense sand storms and the threat of enemy attack. Wentzel credited the successful integration of active-duty bulk fuelers from 7th ESB's Bulk Fuel Co with 6th ESB reservists as a key to mission accomplishment. Joint training between 6th and 7th ESB months prior to activation for Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom proved valuable, he added.
From March 21 - the day the battalion arrived in Iraq - to May 10 - the day it retrograded to Kuwait - 6th ESB dispensed more than 8 million gallons of fuel to coalition forces. The fuel line eliminated a 180 mile round trip through hostile territory for fuel tankers, allowing them to operate closer to forward deployed units.
The battalion's water purification and distribution mission accomplishments were equally impressive. In the first few days of the war, hygiene equipment operators built a water point and began distributing water within twelve hours, a day and a half ahead of schedule. Before retrograding to Kuwait, 6th ESB produced and distributed more than 4.5 million gallons of potable water. "At one time, we had ten water sites throughout Iraq," said SgtMaj. Carlos Bustamante, 44, battalion sergeant major, 6th ESB, from St. Paul, Ore.
To support a large battalion with so many "moving parts," said Bustamante, 6th ESB brought together Marines from various companies to form the Engineer Support Company. Motor transport, maintenance, utilities and heavy equipment sections composed ESC. "This is the first time they all came together to support the battalion," said Bustamante. He highlighted the effort put forth by noncommissioned officers. "Without NCO leadership, none of this would have been accomplished," said Bustamante.
One of those NCOs, Cpl. Marshall Colville, shared the daunting task of trying to keep track of 1,700 Marines scattered over the battalion's 300-mile area of operation. The biggest challenge, said the 20-year-old personnel clerk from Portland, Ore., was "maintaining communications with all the different elements." For his efforts, Colville was meritoriously promoted to corporal in Kuwait. He said his experiences in Iraq gave him "a big appreciation for the level of comfort we live in back home."
6th ESB Marines and sailors lived in austere field conditions. Hot food and showers were rare luxuries and flush toilets, non-existent. The Iraqi desert's invasive talc-like sand and broiling heat made living harsh. But the generous support displayed by supportive families and friends in the form of care packages and letters provided a welcome distraction. LCpl. Justin Penza, a 26-year-old postal clerk from Shell Beach, Calif, figures 6th ESB Marines received about 100 tons of mail. "That's a conservative estimate," he adds.
Another "mail call" from famed "Full Metal Jacket" drill instructor and movie celebrity R. Lee Ermey also boosted morale. Ermey visited 6th ESB's camp in Kuwait while visiting U.S. troops and shooting segments for his History Channel show, "Mail Call." The salty Marine gunnery sergeant re-enacted a scene from the Stanley Kubrik film that brought him fame, and saluted the Marines and sailor in attendance for protecting the liberties of the American people.
Like many Marines, Colville said he looks forward to enjoying those liberties again. Perhaps one day, thanks in part to Marines like Colville, the Iraqi people will enjoy those same freedoms.