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CSSB-1 builds base for land-locked 24th MEU

9 Aug 2004 | Sgt. Matt Epright

Like members of a construction road show, they move from camp to camp in western Iraq, making roads, laying gravel and building berms. By the time they get a new base built up, they must move and start all over again.

Marines from Combat Service Support Battalion 1 have spent more than a month working 12- to 20-hour days in the blazing heat to get this camp up to standards for the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

The MEU, which falls under the control of the 1st Marine Division, will be based here for the rest of its deployment. It will help provide security for the Iraqi people in the Babil Province, as they transition to a democratic society.

This is a major change for the MEU, as it normally operates directly from the naval ships it travels on and is not structured to support itself ashore when it comes to a major undertaking such as building a camp almost from scratch, said Maj. Steve A. Plato, the MEU's logistics officer.

The MEU Service Support Group, one of the elements of the MEU, is set up to directly support and sustain the unit for its typical short-term, smaller-scale missions, such as humanitarian assistance operations, aircraft recovery and evacuation of civilians from hostile territory.

While the MSSG is made up of Marines possessing a wide variety of skills, there are not very many people representing each skill, due to the space limitations on the ships, said Plato, a 34-year-old native of Orange Park, Fla.

"We don't have a lot of depth because we would not have the number of racks for them to sleep on," said Col. Ron Johnson, 48, the MEU commander.

Since The MEU does not typically spend six months as a land-based force, it is not built to conduct extended operations this far inland. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, in 2003, the 24th MEU was only away from its ships for about 45 days, said Johnson.

With the new mission for this deployment in mind, the MEU's leaders found it necessary to adapt. They beefed up their support sections and added some borrowed construction gear.

However, the size of the ship's cargo hold limited how much gear the MSSG was able to bring to Iraq.

"We don't have the heavy equipment capability that exists in the CSSB," said Johnson, a native of Duxbury, Mass.

To compensate for these shortages, the MEU called on CSSB-1, which is part of the 1st Force Service Support Group, to lend its time, personnel and equipment.

"We had to build a landing field ... we had to build a command and control capability and we had to build tents and billeting for the ... Marines that are coming in here," said Johnson. "Some days, these Marines were working 20-hour days to make that work."

The camp looks a lot different than it did when CSSB-1 first arrived in early July.

The 3-foot berm that used to crop up intermittently around the camp is now more than four times as high and surrounds the entire base.

A walk from the living area to the chow tent used to produce its own sand storm from tromping though the pervasive Iraqi "moon dust." Now every trip is accompanied by the sound of gravel crunching underfoot.

That same gravel coats the ground under the newer tent area, as well as the roadways throughout the camp and the forward arming and refueling point, where helicopters of all types land to drop off and pick up supplies.

Most important, from a defensive standpoint, are the dozens of great, gray, concrete monoliths, known as "Alaska" barriers, surrounding the more sensitive areas of the camp.

Standing about 15 feet tall and weighing in at around 17,000 pounds each, the barriers are made to block flying shrapnel from mortars or rockets that the enemy might fire into the camp.

"These guys and gals were working in 125-degree heat, all day long," said Johnson. "Nobody complained."

The Marines of CSSB-1 didn't even stick around to appreciate the fruits of their labor. When they had put the final touches on their work, they packed up their tools, loaded up their bulldozers and headed back to their home base at Camp Fallujah, to be ready for the next call for support.

"Nobody cared that they were going to have to get in there and work these long hours and be able to do something for us -- not their unit," said Johnson. "I can't say enough for those Marines who were out there, and sailors, who worked morning, noon and night to get our camp ready for combat."
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