'Are we there yet?' JTF Enablers' quest for Kandahar

26 Dec 2001 | Sgt. Thomas Michael Corcoran 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit

On Dec. 13, a vital communications link left the belly of the USS Bataan on a long and interesting voyage to the frontline of the "War Against Terrorism." The Joint Task Force Enabler is comprised of Marines with a communications package broad enough to allow a commander to control an air ground task force on a modern-day battlefield. "I can put all the communications options the commander has on the boat in a tent anywhere in the field," said 1st Lt. Johnnie D. Jones, officer in charge of the enabler detachment. "Today, command of a battlefield is reliant on digital communications. Knowing this, the enabler can extend the area of command." Aside from conventional battlefield communications, the enabler offers Internet, telephone and video teleconferencing capabilities in a matter of hours from touchdown on a site. Because the enabler Marines offer so much to the commander, it was obvious that they had to arrive during the initial stages of securing the airport. But as with many things during this war, it was easier said than done. "We started out cool," said Sgt. Julius Willis, enabler Marine. "The LCAC [an air cushioned landing craft] ride into the beach wasn't cramped and was one of those rare smooth rides." Willis said when they hit the beach in Pakistan, and the sun was setting, it made him think of home -- until he turned and looked at the desert. "I thought, this is a whole different ball game.' From the beach, the Marines caught a convoy to the airfield. Riding in the back of 5-ton trucks, the Marines enjoyed the sight of millions of visible stars, one of the long-standing pleasures of field life.Although the berthing areas were concrete hangars, the accommodations were more than the Marines expected. "I didn't think there would really be anything there," said Cpl. Gonzalo Corridori, the enabler electrical equipment repairman. "Maybe a couple tents and a generator to run the airfield lights." The stop at the airfield only accounted for a couple hours of the enabler crew's journey, before long a KC-130 airplane backed itself up in front of their hangar, loaded up and they were gone. Willis, who says he's not really partial to flying in the first place, felt a little nervous after take off. "I said a little prayer, then I looked over at the [chaplain] and felt all right," said Willis. An hour later, when some of the Marines woke up startled upon touchdown, they found themselves at a secret expeditionary airfield in Pakistan. Corridori didn't think the stay there would be quite as long as it was, but the stop allowed Marines to sleep, shower, exercise and those who didn't care to watch the entertainment in the movie tent, could enjoy the peaceful starry sky. "There's three of them that make a triangle, Mars, Venus and Jupiter," pointed out enabler wireman, Lance Cpl. Lydell G. Turner. "The reason I know that is an astronomy class I took in high school. Turner agreed that even though the Marines were far away from where they started at Camp Lejeune, N.C., three months ago, there were slight similarities and things that reminded them of home. The intermediate support base only turned out to be their home for about a day."We didn't expect to stay there long," said Willis. "I thought we'd be there for 48 to 72 hours 'max.' We ended up not even staying a full day!" The following night, the Marines and their gear were loaded once again on the KC-130s. They sat on the runway for a couple hours while the red glowing lights and the vibration of the KC-130s engines put everyone to sleep. When they woke up and found they hadn't left the ground, one of the KC-130 loadmasters informed them that they received information there could be an enemy surface-to-air missile site along the Kandahar flight route. They would be headed to another airfield in Pakistan instead. When they hit the ground, they began to wonder if they would ever see Kandahar. However, the luxuries that were provided by the Army and Air Force, like laundry facilities, hot showers and free toiletries, took their minds off their delays for a few hours. A good night's sleep and a few loads of laundry later, the Marines were fully focused on their continuing mission to get to Kandahar. "I'm ready to go, ready to hit the objective," Willis said to his fellow Marines who bided their time cleaning weapons. The enablers' communications center chief, Lance Cpl. Matthew C. Georgia, had just finished cleaning his weapon and was sitting down to eat a beef strips with mushrooms Meal-Ready-to-Eat when his sergeant came in and said, "We'll have all our gear in the hangar in a half hour." "It figures," said Georgia. "I'm just sitting down to relax and we get told we've got to go." But, Georgia said they are always ready to go. "It's been like this since we left the ship, always on the go. I'm still excited." When they got to the hangar, elements of the 26th MEU's infantry had caught up with them. After staging their gear, the Marines quickly woofed down bits and pieces of their MREs. "We've got about an hour," said Staff Sgt. Frank R. Crowell, enabler chief. Minutes later they were on the flight line loading into a 5-ton 'shuttle' truck. After everyone was situated on the 'bird,' Master Gunnery Sgt. Bruce A. Taylor, a KC-130 loadmaster out of Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., told the Marines, "Hold on to your weapons and something sturdy when we come in. We've got about 3,000 feet to make a 'short field landing.'" Some of the Marines were leery, but quickly got over it when they felt the excitement of being in the very first fixed-wing aircraft to land at Kandahar International Airport since the Marines secured it just hours prior. Crowell saw aerial photos of the cratered runway. Cratered when U.S. jets strategically bombed it to deny Taliban forces use of it. "I feel pretty good about the landing," said Crowell. "The only problem is they didn't leave much runway. It could be a bumpy ride." Taylor remarked that he thought the landing would be a "piece of cake." "We've been working hard. With only two Cherry Point aircraft, we have moved more than 1 million pounds of cargo and 800 troops in the past couple weeks." Transport in any aircraft means 'nap time' for Marines. And again, they awoke to bad news. The loadmaster passed word that there was suspected anti-aircraft artillery fire, and the aircraft was turned around and went back to the point of departure. When they got off the KC-130, some were in disbelief that they were still not in Kandahar. "Well, the stars are still nice," commented Cpl. Stephen Demel, the enabler's data chief, as he puffed on a cigarette awaiting another 5-ton shuttle back to the hangar. This stay was not as long and within an hour the Marines were on their way back out to the 'bird.' Upon approach to Kandahar, the Marines sat up from their comfortable perches on top of vehicles and generators and started strapping gear to themselves, not knowing what to expect when they hit the ground. The threat of anti-aircraft weaponry created a solemn feeling as they descended. Right before landing, it seemed even the four prop engines of the KC-130 became quiet. The enabler Marines braced themselves as the aircraft touched down followed by the loud rushing sound of air hitting up against the airfoil wing brakes. When the cargo ramp lowered, the Marines hoped off single file, followed by their vehicles - they were in Kandahar. "Finally in Kandahar," said Cpl. Joe Eberenz, enabler network administrator. "I was just glad to get here. I was hoping we wouldn't get turned away again." When they reached the bombed-out terminal, they set down their packs and began the final stage of their mission, establishing good communications. They had a site chosen within minutes of arriving. "We immediately started dropping generators so Corridori could hook up power," Eberenz said. From the time the Enabler Marines arrived, they worked non-stop until they were set up. How did they do it? "We stay awake until everything is done," said Sgt. Steve C. Cabrera, switchboard operator. He said they often snack on MREs to stay awake. "One of the things that really helped us is that we have compressed the enabler package," said Lt. Jones. Before the team deployed with the MEU, they successfully completed three flyaway missions that 'enabled' them to work the bugs out. "Out of nine Enabler teams we are the only ones who does this. This mission was made for us," said Jones. "We proved that we can go ship to shore, get on a plane and set up anywhere," said Cpl. Michael Jones, Jr., satellite van operator. "As Joint Task Force Enabler we did air, land and sea all in one mission." Turner was just glad to get to Kandahar. He explained that the first night is always the hardest for the enabler; they have to work until the command has communications - everything they had on ship. Turner added that their work does not stop when 'comm' gets up; it has to be maintained. He said he would continue to run phone lines while others from the crew would provide maintenance for both the hardware and software. He said cloud cover might weaken the signal to the satellite dish, but Turner doesn't see that problem out here. "I've been able to see the stars a lot clearer in Kandahar." What does all this mean to the commander? "If I didn't look out the window and see Afghanistan, I wouldn't know I left the office," said the 26th MEU commanding officer, Col. Andrew P. Frick. He said from a communication standpoint, there is no difference from the bombed-out Kandahar International Airport to an office at Camp Lejeune. After a long and interesting journey, the Joint Task Force Enabler was able to come in and set up a powerful communications suite successfully. Something Frick described as 'transparent and seamless.'