FORWARD OPERATING BASE DELARAM 2, Afghanistan – Anticipation permeated the dust-filled air here as five Marines waited – 180 half-pound sticks of dynamite sealed in holes bored into the earth were 30 seconds away from shredding thousands of pounds of rock.
A voice crackled over the radio as a Marine gave the countdown. The static died, leaving a heavy silence. Then, a concussive blast thundered across the forward operating base as two consecutive explosions marked resuming progress on a runway.
About 60 Marines from Marine Wing Support Squadron 274 were nearing the halfway mark on the airstrip, to accommodate KC-130 cargo aircraft supporting 3rd Marine Aircraft (Forward) operations. The strip will promote an influx of supplies and troops, and allow this small base to serve as a gateway to western Afghanistan, according to 1st. Lt. Leland Schulz, the platoon commander of MWSS-274’s combat engineer platoon.
Building an airstrip, which will be approximately 500,000 square feet, is no easy feat. Marines from the support squadron worked more than twelve hours a day nonstop since breaking ground May 11. So far, the team has moved more than 256,000 cubic yards of dirt; used more than two million gallons of water; and spread, graded, watered and compacted about 18,000 cubic yards of gravel. The Marines spent close to 10,000 hours on the project, forcing the detachment’s six-man maintenance team to perform minor miracles. The mechanics have saved the day about 125 times, completing mission-critical repair projects to keep the medium-size equipment rolling on this heavy-duty job site.
“Our equipment here wouldn’t be considered big enough to handle this workload in the civilian world,” said Gunnery Sgt. James Seeger, MWSS-274 quality assurance chief for the project. “But Marines are known for getting more done with less. Our maintenance guys are constantly fixing equipment. They have really kept us above water.”
The mechanics are trying desperately to keep up with the equipment operators who are overworking their machines. They logged more than 6,000 machine hours since starting the mammoth project. Yet, these Marines match the quality of work with the quantity of work. An airstrip hosting a KC-130 cargo aircraft must have a California load bearing test rating of 25 – the average rating for the air strip here is 60. That means the Marines have built a landing zone more than twice as strong as needed.
“These guys have definitely become the A-Team. They have had to cross train, have become really diverse and have well-developed [military occupational specialty] skills,” said Gunnery Sgt. Justin Webber, maintenance chief for MWSS-274. “Everyday these guys are coming up with new ways to overcome different problems.”
The Marines had to build a six-foot thick pad in four-inch increments for the parking ramp. Each layer had to be trucked in, spread, graded, watered and compacted. The Marines repeated that process on the runway, the taxi way, four taxi-way connectors and two hammer heads. The engineers used explosives to clear a six-foot thick section of rock that covers the entire runway area. After each blast the equipment operators brought in a ripper – a piece of equipment with a hook on the back that literally rips the earth apart – to clear away rock slabs and debris. So far, the combat engineers have used 53 40-pound shape charges, 31 40-pound cratering charges, 826 half-pound sticks of type M1 dynamite and about 9,500 feet of detonation chord.
“It’s gratifying to be needed in a demolitions role out here,” said Sgt. Daniel Royal, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the engineers here. “A lot of what we do is usually construction and runway repairs. I think we definitely have a good mission out here.”
Once they completed the dirt work, the Marines conducted a similar process with varying types of gravel – they will ultimately use 110,000 cubic yards of gravel to complete the project.
Today’s explosive break through means there is light at the end of the tunnel for the men and women working here, but several months loom ahead. The Marines still have to finish preparing the runway and then they will have to lay more than one-and-a-half million square feet of AM2 expeditionary airfield matting. Although a normal matting project requires less than 10,000 square feet of matting, these Marines won’t balk at the bigger job ahead. Just as they have done, they will adapt, overcome and get the job done.