KANDAHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan --
While deployed with a Marine Expeditionary Unit, a Combat Logistics Battalion is responsible for providing all elements of the MEU with mission-essential combat service support to ensure readiness, sustainment and mission capability are achieved and maintained.
Usually this means being prepared to perform dozens of missions ranging from mass casualty evacuation to humanitarian efforts such as building roads and schools, but for CLB-24, operations in Afghanistan were not normal fare.
Operating across two provinces, the 24th MEU couldn’t conduct counterinsurgency and civil military operations absent its organic logistics element. Comprised of engineers, maintainers, transporters, aerial deliverers, doctors, disbursers, and mail orderlies – to name a few - the Marines and sailors of the logistics battalion support the MEU at four locations.
Personnel are posted at Kandahar Airfield, Camp Bastion, Forward Operating Base Dwyer and FOB Delhi. These outposts are separated by hundreds of miles of desert terrain, a river and unsecure roads, where roads exist that is. Due to the terrain and distance of the three major FOBs (Kandahar, Bastion and Dwyer) logistics plays a massive and complex role in the success of all operations and missions.
Supplying the Tangibles
Positioning all classes of supplies at strategic forward locations allows re-supply to occur more quickly than if it began movement from Kandahar.
“There is nothing too creative about supply,” said Staff Sgt. John Ellerbee, storage operations chief, CLB-24, 24th MEU. “The only solution to any supply problem is ‘make it happen.’”
Before supplies are staged, they have to be transported and are in constant need of replenishment, as by definition supplies are items that have a high rate of usage. Moving these items around the battlefield can be done by ground or air.
On the ground, the terrain poses one of the biggest challenges the transportation support platoon has faced. The terrain covered to deliver supplies is unlike anything these Marines have ever experienced, varying from rocky flat ground to steep hills and deep powder-like sand.
The ground combat logistics convoys across this changing landscape are about 160 miles roundtrip.
“It’s the weirdest thing, vehicles just driving by in the open desert with no discernible roads,” said 1st Lt. Marcos Azua, CLB-24 disbursing officer and three-time convoy commander. “Every once in awhile we would see a pile of rocks the Afghans use to navigate.”
By ground, military convoys are the most dangerous method of transporting goods due to the unsecure open areas between FOBs. One alternative ground option is employing ‘jingle’ trucks.
“Jingle trucks are trucks owned by local nationals who know the back roads of this country and will drive just about anywhere, with anything in the bed of their truck for a small fortune,” said Maj. Keith Owens, Executive Officer, CLB-24, 24th MEU.
Jingle trucks take a few days to get to Camp Bastion or FOB Dwyer, and they have hauled multitudes of cargo for the CLB, some of which included heavy equipment, 7 ton trucks, food and water.
The jingle truck solution has all different challenges ranging from trucks that take 10-20 days to drive 300 miles, to trucks that never arrive at their destination, to trucks that do make it, but their cargo has … changed; fuel becomes watered down and has debris in it, water becomes dirty.
One such recurring incident was met by the resourcefulness of the engineer Marines at FOB Dwyer. They built an adapter for the Tactical Water Purification System (TWPS) which allowed the hose from the TWPS to connect directly into the ‘jingle’ water truck because the water left Kandahar Airfield clean and arrived at Dwyer dirty said 1st Lt. Nicole Penn, engineer platoon commander, CLB-24, 24th MEU.
Water – its availability, movement and purification is a common thread among all the platoons of the logistics battalion. Some convoys have driven with the cargo almost exclusively water. Water was air dropped, engineers purified water for showers the medical personnel tested water for impurities.
“Try going one day here without it (water),” said Owens. “During heavy combat ops in May-June time, one of our explosive ordnance disposal technicians counted the bottles of water he drank in 24 hours – it was 27 bottles. And he was in a Mine Resistant Ambush Protective vehicle with the A/C on for part of the day.”
When ground delivery is not tenable, air delivery affords the MEU the opportunity to keep trucks off the road, access areas too dangerous for a convoy and provides a straight shot from Kandahar to Marines in the fight.
As operations began and companies in locations without secure land routes required expeditious resupply, landing support Marines would rig a cargo net full of supplies and equipment and push them out of helicopters on the right spot.
These Marines know the answers to questions like: How do you drop an orange or a banana from a C-130 without it exploding on impact?
The FOBS and making cold
Unlike Iraq, FOBs that are not US owned, or that do not have a large American presence have their own unique challenges. “They don’t have 110V outlets, a US Postal Service, disbursing or ATMs that provide US dollars, or compatible fuel in the quantities we need,” said Lt. Col. Ricky Brown, commanding officer, CLB-24, 24th MEU.
It’s easy for Marines to be “hard corps” and say they don’t need comfort items like air conditioning, but our systems aren’t that tough, said Col. Peter Petronzio, commanding officer, 24th MEU. “The more technological we get, the more we need to keep the computers cool, if not the Marines.”
The MEU primarily used Afghan air conditioning units called Chigos which required specific wiring to function. At one FOB, this wire was in short supply and all that was available was 12-gauge wire, which was not thick enough to hold the power in the high temperatures.
“The wires were burning up,” said Penn.
After some tinkering, Lance Cpl. Jonathan Johnson, engineer, CLB-24, 24th MEU, came up with a workaround. He cut the available wire and re-weaved it to make it thicker. The engineer Marines then put up four walls and a roof to make a ‘circuit breaker box house’ where they ran the wires Johnson was not able to re-weave. This kept the thinner wires off the hot ground and protected them from the direct glare of the sun.
“The wires we couldn’t make thicker, we made cooler by creating shade for them,” said Penn.
From re-weaving wires and inverting tow bars to tow disabled non-US vehicles, to keeping U.S. blood in supply at the British hospital and using new ways of packing parachutes- creativity was both in high demand and supply throughout the CLB.
Supplying the Intangibles
Morale is crucial to the effectiveness and efficiency of any mission and things like food, pay and mail are some of the largest contributors to keeping morale high.
Despite the distance, the heat and the terrain – the Marines of CLB-24 were instrumental in providing a few ‘warrior meals’ to the infantry Marines operating in Garmsir. Getting food to the operators is in the mission – but what about when that food is not made-for-the-field prepackaged Meals-Ready-To-Eat? What if that food is steaks and ice cream?
“This is not the stuff taught in schools,” said Maj. Cliff Carpenter, logistics officer, 24th MEU. “We were worried about the meat and ice cream making it since it was more than 120 degrees. The guys here at Kandahar were able to coordinate pulling the meat and ice cream from the reefer, getting it directly to the flightline where the birds were already spinning to get it to Garmsir. One July 4th and August 23rd, the Marines enjoyed some real food.”
Right behind the steady flow of food and water to the field is mail. Nothing makes a Marine light up more than getting a letter or a package from home.
“On mail day everyone might be busy in the office having all consumed unitized group rations for breakfast, terrible infantry battalion coffee and an MRE for lunch when someone walks in with a can of caramel corn! Or if someone has a creative relative, they get a bag of chips and salsa wrapped so that it is still good and we are all at a Mexican restaurant for a few minutes. It’s crazy but mail takes you someplace else for a few minutes,” said Owens.
On a typical day the postal Marines receive and sort through 6 to 14 pallets of mail weighing more than 34,000 pounds.
As plentiful as mail, so is the need for medical and dental care and not just to the Marines of the 24th MEU. As often as the patients have been U.S. service members, they have been Afghan citizens. Both in Garmsir and in Kandahar, Afghans who have come to the Marines have found the care they sought. From a child who was injured when he picked up unexploded ordnance to the women and children who come to the Afghan National Army clinic outside the Kandahar Airfield, the CLB medical and dental Sailors are quick to respond.
“The MEU would not have accomplished everything it was able to without the CLB consistently performing the less glamorous behind-the-scenes tasks to support the guys in the fight,” said Lt. Col. Matthew Trollinger, operations officer, 24 MEU.
As the Marines of 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment flow back to Kandahar upon the conclusion of operations in Helmand Province, the CLB Marines and sailors have kept “North park” running and ready for their return. North park is the area on Kandahar Airfield where the majority of Marines and sailors live. Once a minefield, North park is now a small tent city and home to more than 2,000 residents. The MEU’s mission started there and it will end there – supported by the CLB.