KANDAHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan -- As the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit prepares for full-spectrum operations to support NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, clouds of dust, reminiscent of a sandstorm, rise from a corner of their base as a flurry of construction projects are underway to accommodate the more than 2,300 Marines and their equipment.
From the 24th MEU’s aviation combat element’s hangar, Gunnery Sgt. Daniel West, maintenance control staff non-commissioned officer-in-charge, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 365 (Reinforced), 24th MEU, ISAF, reflects on the drastic change at the NATO base.
“Where that tent city is (pointing somewhat east) was just a barren field full of mines,” West explained, overlooking a lot crowded with structures for Marines to sleep, eat and bathe. “Within a month they have constructed that whole area, contracted all the services, acquired all our work spaces and started work on two ramps (on the flight line).”
The flight line improvements demonstrate the 24th MEU’s ability to quickly arrive in an area and operate with minimal infrastructure. Instead of pouring concrete or other time-consuming activites, Marines employ an interlocking system of panels on which aircraft can park or land.
Fresh off a tour in Iraq, Marines from Marine Wing Support Squadron 271 slammed each slab of matting into place, creating room for the 24th MEU’s aerial arsenal.
“We build runways and parking pads that can be laid down within a weeks notice,” said Cpl. Shaun Mikicic, expeditionary airfield technician, MWSS 271, Marine Wing Support Group 27, 2nd Marine Air Wing. “We have a deadline for when they want to park all their aircraft, so our biggest concern is meeting that deadline.”
With each swing of a hammer, another tile snaps into place and the 400,000 sq. ft. jigsaw inches toward that deadline. Almost as soon as the Marines create breathing room, more aircraft arrive looking for a place to park – most recently a group of AV-8B II Harriers. They now rest on a 96,000 sq. ft. strip the Marines pieced together over three 16-hour days in the sun, sand and wind.
“Obviously it is really hot during the day, slamming 155- pound slabs of matting. It takes a lot of those to build an airfield,” explained Warrant Officer Joseph Whitebear, expeditionary airfield and emergency services officer, MWSS 271. “They push through it like Marines do, it’s not an easy job, but they are probably the best at it.”
The airfield operation is similar in technique to what his Marines did in Iraq and back home, only on a much larger scale.
“From what I am being told, it is the largest solid connect pad that any expeditionary airfield (unit) has done,” said Whitebear.
Like the men who laid railroads across the country, allowing unprecedented transcontinental travel, these Marines know that their efforts are key to transportation.
During a pause in the pounding, one Marine reflected on their importance to the 24th MEU’s mission. “This is the first step to get aircraft in the air so they can support the Marines on the ground,” said Sgt. Cody Gonzales, expeditionary airfield technician, MWSS 271.
By quickly creating their own air strip, the Marines won’t disrupt other air operations on the base when all the aircraft arrive, a surprising feat considering the size of the arriving Marine force.
“We are going to have the most aircraft out here of any squadron on base,” West said.
The tent city, noticeable from the flight line expansion, is further proof of the Marines large, yet temporary presence.
Over the past month, 2nd Lieutenant Gregory Procaccini, combat engineer officer, Combat Logistics Battalion 24, 24th MEU, ISAF, has overseen the transformation of a minefield to a Marine camp.
“We didn’t have any idea of what we were going to have when we got here,” he said.
Proving that all tents are not created equal, Procaccini arrived to find the Air Force’s interpretation of tents much more palatable than those Marines are accustomed to. After arriving, he was greeted by an Air Force unit bearing supplies to create a mini-city and teams of civilian contractors ready to set it up.
“It’s a package deal. They (the tents called Harvest Falcon II) come with the air conditioner unit, the lights, the ducting, flooring, power generation, showers, latrine units – they all came with the package as well as piping, water bags and fuel bags,” Procaccini said.
Included in this package were even expert technicians from the 49th Material Maintenance Group. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Richard Sheridan, chief enlisted manager, 49th MMG, roams the camp making sure his fellow American service members’ new home is up to par.
“You have a small city here. We have a power plant so they don’t have to worry about power issues. Every single tent has air conditioning so you can keep comfortable even when it is 110 degrees out here. We even built a chow hall out here so you don’t need to go anywhere else to eat,” he explained. “Everything you need is right here.”
“We are here to help the Marines get set up and go take care of the bad guys. When you are here with the comforts of home it should give you some respite from the mountains,” said Sheridan. Simply put, “a place to rest your feet and not step in mud.”
The Marines will only be here for a limited duration. The Marines must find a balance between the amount of infrastructure needed to conduct operations and their finite timeline.
“Our footprint when we leave will be minimal, because we have put in no hard structures,” explained West.
Even the permanent-looking flight line additions will all be taken apart in the same piece-by-piece fashion when the Marines leave.
“We can go in somewhere lay it (flight line additions) down really fast, use it, and pick it up without anyone ever knowing it was here,” Gonzales said.
When the time comes, the expansive tent city created for the Marines will eventually be torn down, rolled up and shipped out and the harsh, sandy wind the shelters once protected Marines from will erase any remnants of the Marines having resided there.