'More grunts are going home alive because of what you are doing'

'More grunts are going home alive because of what you are doing' »Play Video
The 9th ESB works throughout the night smoothing and widening the roads to make it more accessible for larger vehicles. The 6th ESB performs security.

HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan - “It’s like 'Field of Dreams' - build it and they will come,” says LtCol Ted Adams to Oregon Marines as they sit on benches - and in the dirt - of Afghanistan.

The Marines, from 2nd Platoon of the 6th Engineer Support Battalion (ESB) attached to the 9th ESB, an active duty unit, are headed out for over a month-long mission providing security for road construction.

“Many more grunts are going home alive because of what you are doing,” says Adams, commander of the 9th ESB.

The improvement of roads helps support infantry units by increasing their supplies and capabilities to build up the desolate areas.

Better roads also improve the quality of life for the local populace.

For Adams, it is a win-win.

The only downside of the mission is the IED belt Marines will have to cross later in the month as they make their way closer to Sangin, a current Taliban hotspot area.
In the morning, rows of trucks are filled with ammunition, fuel, food and water.

There is a grader, a bulldozer, a tram and a compactor that will also make the journey.

More than 20 trucks will roll out on this convoy headed about 15 kilometers southwest of Sangin.

After several hours on the highway, the trucks head over into the rough terrain of the vast desert of the northern area of the Helmand Province.

Just as the sun begins to set, engineers from the 9th ESB use a bulldozer with a mine rake to search the hard packed earth for IEDs. “It’s designed to blow up things,” says one Marine sitting inside an armored vehicle.

The Marines wait for over an hour to clear the land; they can’t afford not to play it safe.

“We’re playing the cards close to the chest as far as losing vehicles,” says platoon commander Cpt Ryan Bumgardner, 29, of Hood River, Ore. “We have a lot of traveling to do.”

When the IED sweep is over, the vehicles are driven down into a large wadi or valley. The armored vehicles and construction equipment make their way slowly over the loose gravel of large rocks. When they reach their destination, another IED sweep is conducted on foot with a metal detector over a suspicious plot of land.

LCpl Jeffery Wilson, 20, of Jefferson, Ore., and several other Marines head into the darkness, scanning the sand illuminated by an armored vehicle’s headlight.

“Turns out there wasn’t anything," Wilson says the next morning, "so I’m happy and it’s all good.”

The Marines spend the night and morning at this location. The 9th ESB will work throughout the night smoothing and widening the roads to make it more accessible for larger vehicles. One of the goals is to have fuel trucks come through this road to support a Forward Arming and Refueling Point (FARP) farther north.

A FARP, like a gas station for aircraft, will be used for security helicopters like the Cobras and the Apaches, as well as the Medevac birds. If the FARP is built, it will give these aircraft more flight time and a larger area of travel, which Adams says will save lives.

One of the difficulties of this project is that the Marines have to carry water in one of their trucks here, as opposed to drawing water from a local canal.

The 9th ESB will use 8,000 gallons of water for compacting the road. They also carry 5,000 gallons of fuel and will use up to 2,000 gallons in the first three days.

The trucks get about 2 to 3 mpg.

This vast desert has little to offer for natural resources, but there are upsides.

“The lack of a civilian populace and the subdued nature of the area makes this the easy part,” says the heavy equipment platoon commander, Chief Warrant Officer Matthew Lovely, 36, of Rome, N.Y.

He will be the man in charge of the over month-long project.

“We’re not as well received in Sangin,” he says, referring to the next leg of the journey.

They expect IEDs - lots of IEDs - will be part of their welcoming reception as they continue on the rough terrain of the desert.

For now, the Oregon Marines set up a wide perimeter of security with their trucks. They will take shifts between manning the 50-caliber machine gun on the turret on top of the vehicle and sleeping.

In the darkness, squad leader Cpl Titus Rencher, 24, of Eugene, Ore., and several other Marines sit in the close quarters of the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle.

Throughout the night Marines will search for comfortable positions for when it is their turn to get some shut eye.

“It’s alright, it’s pretty cramped,” says Rencher, who is 6-foot-2 and has about two feet of room to stretch out his legs.

“We’ve been in four hour rotations up in the turret, on the gun,” he says. As one Marine sleeps, two stay awake: one performs security on the turret, manning the gun; and another stays awake inside the truck.

Over the course of two nights there is no enemy activity in the desert, which means the road construction continues undeterred by Taliban but leaves Marines with monotonous hours.

“We do a lot of things to stay focused, we talk with each other and try and stay motivated in the late hours of the night,” he says.

In another truck across the desert, platoon guide Sgt Tim Patterson, 28, Portland, Ore., passes the time indulging in a few Beck’s non-alcoholic beers.

“I could feel it a little bit, but it’s not the same,” he says with a laugh the next morning.

From his view inside the truck, he watches the traffic of cars and camels moving across the land. One of the goals of the road construction is to win popularity from the locals who will also utilize the improvements.

For now the Marines have no reason to stop any of the vehicles.

“We’re trying not to be hostile,” he says. “We try to not mess up their day, but if anything does go down, we’re here to stop it.”

Patterson is the type of Marine who has a joke to tell even in the middle of the night after days of sleep deprivation, but he still pauses for a while before saying “it’s just long” about the difficult aspect of this particular mission.

During the long hours he makes sure everyone gets some rest, eats and drinks. He is quick to add they are drinking water along with their night of non-alcoholic beer. “We make sure we’re alert,” he says.

The next day Marines make their way to the next site where similar road construction projects will be completed. Halfway there, traveling for just two kilometers, one of the trucks breaks downs.

The entire convoy stops and waits as Marines attempt to fix a broken axle on the trailer carrying heavy equipment. The truck is also leaking coolant.

Marines decide the remove the axle and carry it to the next destination. One of the hazards of traveling in a war zone is not only the threat of IEDs or Taliban gunfire, but also the destruction that sand, sun and rough terrain inflicts on equipment.

Within an hour the Marines are on the road again; breaking down and picking up is just part of the game. “It happens a lot,” says a Marine with shrug.

The bulldozer clears the next spot, and Oregon Marines set up security around the area of construction.

Over the next two nights, Marines stare out into the quiet beige landscape. The days will bleed over in that familiar syndrome that Marines refer to as Groundhog’s Day.

The peace won’t last for long; in the next few days Marine will head towards Sangin and the possibilities of IEDs will increase.

Conversations start with phrases like, "if we get blown up" and "if we receive indirect fire."

They can’t help but expect they will get hit and, at the same time, hope that they won’t get hit.

This is life for Oregon Marines in the war zone of the Helmand province, Afghanistan.

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.

More stories by Cali Bagby on KVAL.com | Visit Cali Bagby's blog