With the 2nd Squad, 1st Platoon of Alpha Company of the 6th Engineer Support Battalion based out of Springfield, Ore.
FORWARD OPERATING BASE ZEEBRUGGE, Kajaki, Afghanistan - After a lunch of Meals Ready to Eat, the Marines argue over whether football or soccer is the more difficult sport.
They talk about what they are looking forward to when the return home.
They talk about hard work and their accomplishments.
Their mission at FOB Zeebrugge is to build protection, like sand barriers and guard posts. They also build structures to improve the overall base, like staircases, shelves and doors.
Squad leader Sgt Kevin Houser, 25, of Bend, Ore., says these projects are “to help the Marines out that are going out every day, going on patrols and keeping this area safe.”
Houser points to the landscape of the Kajaki district, which is located in the northern region of the Helmand province, Afghanistan. This area is known for its hydropower drawn from a large dam.
The calmness of the wide, blue river, green vegetation and beautiful mountains can be deceiving images.
The base is literally surrounded by Taliban forces. While IEDs and gunfights are a regular part of the outside mission, the Oregon engineers are tasked with making the inside more bearable.
“We were allotted 30 days to do these projects,” says Houser. “And we’ve done them in about 20.”
Those 20 days were filled with obstacles that only exist for construction projects in a war zone.
All building materials were flown in by helicopter and there were special regulations for those items. For instance, 20-foot long pieces of lumber had to be cut in half to fit regulation size for the aircraft.
“We’ve had to get pretty creative with how we’ve built these structures,” says Houser.
Marines arrived nine days before their tools and supplies, so they had to rush to finish projects in less time.
“Marines have been running to get everything done,” says Houser. “I’ve never worked with a group of harder working Marines, they’re awesome.”
Here is what they built:
Chow Hall with tables and benches
Building Time: 3 days
Purpose: “To improve the standard of living,” says Cpl Dawson Griffith, 23, of Lebanon, Ore. This is the second chow hall on the base. The primary chow hall was often overcrowded, so the engineers started building. “We expanded to make a place where everyone would be able to eat, do classes and training,” says Griffith.
Building Time: 4 days with Marines working from 7- 3pm
Purpose: “We built it because they needed more room to work on the Humvees and other things here,” says LCpl Raymon Butterfield, 21, of Beaverton, Ore. The Oregon Marines replaced the older bay with a wider structure, complete with a tin roof and shelves.
“If a truck goes down they have more space, another opportunity to get the truck out so they can go outside on their patrols,” says LCpl Tyler Hills, 20, of Eugene, Ore.
How do they stay motivated day after day?
“Going home is good motivation. We’re all pretty tired,” says Butterfield. “It’s good to be able to help these guys out a lot ‘cause when we came up here they didn’t really have all that much, so we’ve been able to build a lot of stuff to help them out and that’s helped to motivate me.”
Building Time: 1 to 3 days, 8-10 hours of work a day
Purpose: Marines can use the structures as a smoking area, shade from the sun or refuge from the rain.
Hundreds of Boarded Up Windows
Building Time: 4 or 5 days
Purpose: The original windows on many buildings where Marines live had only glass or cardboard as protection. “In case of IDF, Indirect Fire, they wanted to put something more substantial,” says LCpl Kimberly Burrows, 22, of Albany, Ore.
Entry Control Point (ECP)
Building Time: About a week
The ECP is made up of a plywood guard station surrounded by sand-filled barricades. Outside of the post, on the road to the base, there are more rows of barriers set up to slow down vehicles.
“They have to swerve around these barriers, which these guys are kind of in a hurry,” says Cpl Nathan Arguien, 25, of Salem, Ore., watching as two armored vehicles come up the road. “They’ll come through here and check in at the gate and basically it gives the gate guard a little more time to decide if these are good guys or bad guys.”
The Marines also built a thick fence of razor wire near the barriers. “I actually think it gives the sparkle, the shine,” says LCpl Luke Evans, 23, of Medford, Ore., who staked out the fence by hand. “This ground isn’t very forgiving,” says Arguien. “If you haven’t noticed there’s mountains and rocks everywhere. So it’s quite a few sweaty days of pounding these in.’’ The razor also has a tendency to be destructive, even to the Marines. “It ripped my pants, ripped gloves, it was great,” says LCpl Joseph Thom, 24, Troutdale, Ore. “Defiantly can get tangled up in it if you’re not careful.”
“It’s the little things for these guys, to basically give them something to come back to, somewhere they can relax and try to forget about everything that’s going on and the hard mission they have to go on,” says Houser. Some of the projects may sound like a drop in the bucket, but proper, wooden doors provide protection from the local wild jackals and provide extra insulation for the coming temperatures of Afghanistan’s harsh winter. Other projects aren’t as useful as they are meaningful.
Building Time: About an hour
Purpose: “The cross represents all the Marines that have fallen, its probably one of the most meaningful things we’ve built if not the top one,” says LCpl Cody McCord, 20, of South Bend, Ind.
Cali Bagby is embedded with the Marines in Helmand province, Afghanistan, north of the Pakistani border, as a multimedia journalist for KVAL News.
Bagby is a freelance multimedia journalist who spent 10 months embedded with the Oregon National Guard in Iraq for KVAL.com.
She is a graduate of the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication.