Tuesday, July 7, 2009

US Marines Blaze a Trail Across Helmand Province

Dispatches from the Front

Dispatches from the Front:

HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan, July 7, 2009 -- As U.S. Marines launch the largest helicopter insertion since the Vietnam War, Marine Corps convoys are blazing a path towards the Helmand River Valley across terrain where no roads exist. Temperature and the harsh landscape are expected to be their biggest obstacles said military planners. Their mission here is threefold.

"Within the first 96 hours, we'll build Forward Operating Base Payne from the ground up. Right now it's just a blank slate. We'll also build a combat outpost nearby. And finally, we'll build a fording site across the Helmand River," said Lt. Col. Chris Braney, commanding officer for Combat Logistics Batalion-8.

CLB-8's mission is just one element of a major offensive which involves more than 10,000 U.S. Marines and Sailors. The ultimate goal of the operation is to bring security and stability to Helmand province which has seen the most insurgent attacks in Afghanistan.

With temperatures in the 120's and terrain that consists of a hard, rocky ground pitted with deep potholes and covered by several inches of a soft talcum-like powder, Braney said he expects his vehicles to take a beating during the 112 kilometer drive which could last longer than 24 hours.

"We trained for these conditions for five weeks back at Twenty-Nine Palms on the Mojave Viper Training Center," said Braney. "Since we've been here we've hit IEDs, multiple attacks. The success my Marines have had here I attribute to our training."

The only difference between training on the range and Helmand province is the road, or lack thereof. The path from their base to the objective is literally a line on a map. No vehicle has ever made this drive.

According to Braney, "by far the distance and the terrain are the most difficult part of the mission. We're prepared for any attacks, but by far it's the distance and terrain will be the most difficult part of this."

Each convoy has at least one wrecker to repair vehicles that break down. The soft dirt Marines call "moon dust" gets into the oil and clogs air filters. According to Braney, when convoys arrive at his forwarding operating base, one out of four can't immediately go back out because of mechanical problems. Half lose their air conditioning along the way. These are vehicles that were driving on an actual road. What maintenance problems the U.S. forces will encounter driving through the desert remains unknown.

"We're used to going into the unknown," Braney said confidently.

(Report from an uncredited Regimental Combat Team 3 news release.)

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