News: Home is where you lay your sea bags
Story by Sgt. Earnest J. Barnes
FIREBASE SAENZ, Helmand province, Afghanistan — Marines regularly deploy around the world in support of various operations, leaving all the comforts of home behind for months on end. Big screen TV’s, favored restaurants, and the wide-open spaces of America the Beautiful fade into the back of their minds. Though all the Land of Opportunity has to offer is out of reach, the Marines of Alpha Battery have made their firebase a home.
The Hawaii based battery, which is part of 1st Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment, arrived in May to Firebase Saenz, a position which was mildly organized and offered very few of the American comforts they recently left.
The battery landed to find a triangle-shaped firebase with dirt-mound walls, limited air-conditioned tents, and little to no shade. It was looking to be a long and uncomfortable deployment in comparison to the sea-breeze paradise they had recently departed.
“I came on the advanced party, so I was able to see [the firebase] before my Marines did,” said Staff Sgt. John Kellam, a Cincinnati, native and the position battery-gunnery sergeant. “When we first got here, operationally everything was in place. My first impression of the place was we’ve got a lot of work to do. I immediately started making changes.”
Kellam mentioned his commanding officer’s main concerns were the few security issues he identified when he came to make his pre-deployment site survey. Kellam added they made the walls of the firebase taller and they placed more concertina wire around their position for additional protection.
The security conditions on the firebase were only one of many obstacles the battery would have to overcome in the coming months. Kellam, whose job is to make sure the Marines have everything they need, thought he’d get information on what would have made life more comfortable from the junior Marines of Charlie, 1st Battalion, 10th Marine Regiment, who were wrapping up their tour.
“As soon as we got here, I talked to the young Marines who were leaving to find out what they thought,” said Kellam. “They always have opinions; I took all that into account and took all of their advice.”
Kellam and his Marines didn’t expect a room in a five-star hotel by any means, but he mentioned as far as living conditions go, “the Marines look at it like it is a seven-month camping trip.”
Kellam started small, but thought big and made the living conditions as good as possible despite the tawny surroundings.
“First thing I started to do was get on the phone with our battalion—asking for tents, solar shades, anything we could get. We started out with just the basics,” said Kellam, who is an 11-year veteran. “They definitely answered all the calls.”
Kellam added his battalion was working with Regimental Combat Team-8 to obtain most of the gear requested.
”It’s units like RCT-8 providing all the things we have out here and doing everything they can to help the guys who are out in positions like this,” said Kellam.
RCT-8 provided the battery with field tents, solar shades, and many other items few would view as amenities. These items were worth their weight in gold for the Marines of Alpha Battery, who spend a majority of their time in the Afghan elements. The temperatures in southern Afghanistan can reach well above 130 degrees at the sun’s peak during the summer season, so anything that can provide shade is welcomed by the Marines.
Kellam took care of the necessities first and once things began to move forward, he instructed his section chiefs to make their house a home. He brought his section chiefs together to unveil his base plan for organizing the position.
“Staff Sgt. Kellam let us know what he wanted done and the non-commissioned officers took charge and the Marines busted their tales to make sure it got done,” said Sgt. Tyler Ledbetter, a Vancouver, Wash., native and a howitzer section chief for the battery. “They just took a lot of pride knowing this was going to be our home.”
Ledbetter mentioned it has been great to see all of the Marines on the fire base come together, work as one, and to make it their home.
“For the first month—month and a half, everyday was constant position improvement,” said Ledbetter, who is on his third combat tour. “My section alone filled 2,600 sandbags in six days just to be able to say this is our home. They came in and flattened the area out that was full of mounds of dirt and filled these sand bags and we added our own little touch to it. We put our own little [security] post on one corner to add a little bit of humor—to say this is our last stand, this is our base, and this is our home right here.”
The Marines of Gun-3 have gone as far as to build themselves porches outside of their tents and have painted the words “Home, Sweet, Home” on rocks, which rest at the entry way of their berthing area.
Each section of the battery took the initiative to make personal touches to their area. Homemade card tables, wooden-lounge chairs, and sandbag couches are all strategically placed, providing the Marines an organized layout and offering them a comfortable environment on their own little piece of land.
The Marines were getting used to sleeping in the berthing areas next to their guns and actually put up a fight to move into air-conditioned tents, which arrived three months into their deployment.
“This is a place we can hang out,” Ledbetter stated. “I just got A/C tents and I had to fight some of my Marines to get them to go up there and sleep. They didn’t want to leave here because they felt that this was their home. I think it gives them a piece of their own personal pie.”
Kellam said once the Marines were convinced “this is where we are going to be—this is where we are going to lay our heads for the next seven months,” it encouraged them to make the place better.
Kellam added they do a lot things old fashion, but the Marines do not mind because their experiences here are stories they can tell later.
“A lot of the things we do out here are pretty old school, but the Marines enjoy every bit of it,” said Kellam. “It is bragging rights when they get home. The Marines can say honestly they lived in the dirt—they shot artillery in the dirt for seven months with limited amenities.”
Ledbetter agrees with his fellow cannoneer, but believes there are more than just cool stories his Marines are getting out of this deployment.
“We take a shower with water bottles and [we] wash our clothes in buckets,” said Ledbetter. “It makes you respect the little things and it makes you treasure them. From my previous deployments, I know you go home and you look at the little things and you can’t help but smile and know how fortunate you are to have those things.”
Ledbetter continued stating, “We are supposed to live like this. As Marines, we are supposed to go into any clime and place and conduct business. That is what makes us Marines and that is what makes the Marine Corps what it is.”
The battery can be asked at any given time to move their firebase elsewhere to support the units attached to 2nd Marine Division (Forward), according to Kellam. This doesn’t present a problem for Marines of Alpha because they understand they are here to support the division with timely and accurate artillery fires, anywhere they are needed within the province.
“Anything we can do to support the units,” said Ledbetter. “If that means picking up everything we’ve done and moving it—next position we get to we are going to conduct business as usual and continue position improvement and we are going to make it just as good, if not better than what we have now.”
Alpha Battery has worked hard to make their position what they call their deployment home, but they can move anywhere in the province or in the world on command. From the sulfur beaches of Iwo Jima to the deserts of southern Afghanistan, wherever Marines lay their sea bags is where they will rest their heads. Their home is not a current grid coordinate but wherever they stand side by side with their brothers-in-arms.
“It’s a brotherhood. We all know each other so well—we are a family out here,” said Kellam. “Home is where their fellow Marines are.”
Editor’s note: Alpha Battery, 1st Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment, is currently assigned to 2nd Marine Division (Forward), which heads Task Force Leatherneck. The task force serves as the ground combat element of Regional Command (Southwest) and works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Forces and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces, and enabling ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its area of operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.