News: Marine engineers construct major fortifications in Helmand's hostile territory
Story by Sgt. Scott Whittington
KOSHTAY, Garmsir District, Helmand Province, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan — The mission for Marines here is to seize ground controlled by Taliban insurgents, hold that ground and build on it. Building in this case means fortifying their exposed position on the very front lines of this conflict. However, Marine infantrymen are not known for their carpentry and construction skills. That responsibility falls on the engineers.
Marines from 1st Combat Engineer Battalion, Combat Logistics Battalion 8 and 8th Engineer Support Battalion rolled out in a 20-vehicle convoy full of heavy equipment and building materials, Aug. 16, to construct a semi-permanent position for Company G, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, which often receives enemy fire.
"This will provide Golf Company an overwatch for their resupply routes," said 2nd Lt. Mark H. Tetzel, platoon commander with Co. D, 1st CEB. It has been difficult to get supplies to Co. G's position since they arrived here in early July. Overwatch will give the Marines a better vantage point to scan the area for approaching enemy fighters or IED implanters.
Construction started immediately upon arrival late in the evening and continued round the clock. The engineers' built two observation posts, Patrol Base Khanjar and Combat Outpost Koshtay, as well as a medium girder bridge. These builds include creating a berm, filling metal, mesh barriers called Hesco with dirt, and constructing security posts high on the walls. While they were in the area, they also repaired a damaged culvert along the resupply route to allow provisions to safely arrive at Co. G's position.
"It's an upgrade," said Gunnery Sgt. Stuart A. Shine, commander, 2nd Platoon, Co. G, 2/8, about watching the engineers in action. "It's amazing how you can live one place one day, engineers hit the deck, and now you have a new place to live and call home."
Company G had been living in abandoned buildings and in open areas since their helicopter insertion on the first day of Operation Khanjar July 2. The company is the last Marine company-size unit in the province that didn't have a fortified, forward position in protection of the local population.
"People around here will see the Marines aren't leaving," said Shine, a Reseda, Calif., native. One of the reservations local Afghans have about cooperating with the Marines is they feel the Taliban will punish them after the Marines leave. And the misconception is they'll be leaving soon. "We're committed to the [local populace]. We want to get close to them, stick by them and protect them."
With a sense of urgency to complete the build, the Marines worked quickly but still had to overcome many challenges. One of those was mobility, according to Tetzel, a University of Akron graduate.
"The ingenuity of my Marines is incredible," said the former Youngstown, Ohio, firefighter. "No matter what my Marines face, they will figure it out. They think outside the box."
This was proven after a 73,000-pound combat excavator sank about eight feet in sponge-like mud at Patrol Base Khanjar. The piece of heavy machinery was being used to build a berm around the exterior of the patrol base when it started sinking. It took the Marines several hours, a small bulldozer and handheld shovels to dig it out enough for a wrecker and two other vehicles to pull it free.
"When I get to do my job, it's refreshing," said wrecker driver Cpl. Paul B. Dekker, 23, 1st CEB and Redding, Calif., native "Mobility relies on me and my [assistant] driver. Without my truck, there is no way heavy equipment can get down here."
In addition to rescuing the stuck excavator, "Dekker the Wrecker," as he is called by the engineer Marines, also freed 12 stuck vehicles from the soft, deep sand of the open desert along the 14-hour drive from Camp Dwyer more than 25 miles away.
Besides mobility issues, a more dangerous challenge was completing the mission while the Taliban attempted to disrupt progress with attacks.
On the second morning of the project, insurgents fired an rocket propelled grenade and small arms at the engineers at COP Koshtay. Company G, who was providing security, was able to suppress the attack and no one was injured. The combat construction crew continued their mission to build a safer environment for the company.
"My Marines absolutely refuse to not accomplish the mission," stressed Tetzel.
Once the construction is complete, Co. G Marines will have increased flexibility, enabling them to reach out to their neighbors in the local community. Rather than constant vigilance, the Marines will now have some breathing room, giving them an opportunity to relax, focus more time and energy planning and preparing future missions.
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