Combat engineers improve ‘Old Silk Road’

Posted: January 24, 2012 in Uncategorized
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Story and photos by U.S. Marine Master Gunnery Sgt. Phil Mehringer

HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan — Nearly 150 Marines from 2nd Marine Logistics Group (Forward)’s 9th Engineer Support Battalion converged in the open Helmand desert on a dry river bed known as a wadi. They needed to quickly build a land bridge through the wadi, rushing to complete the project before the seasonal, heavy monsoon rains began.

The average rainfall for the month of January is more than 6 inches, while the month of June is typically measured at less than a quarter-of-an-inch – more than a 2,300 percent increase in precipitation.

The road, which is known as Route Red, lies on the western side of the Helmand River and is used to travel north and south from Gereshk to Musa Qalah. It is rumored to be part of the original Silk Road, connecting the East to the West centuries ago and is easily navigated 10 months out of the year with the exception of the rainy season.

The rapid downpour of rain and limited ability for the hardened, sun-baked Helmand desert to absorb the runoff, creates flooding, forcing local civilians and military vehicles to use an alternate route adding at least 18 miles to their trip in either direction.

Constructing a wadi crossing will save time, money and it is expected to facilitate commerce and traffic to the area. The road is likely to be paved in the near future.

The construction project is huge, spanning 120 meters, said Staff Sgt. Aron Szekely from Tampa, Fla., who arrived with his unit in late November. The scheduled 10-day build has the Marines working nearly around the clock, “but it looks like we might finish early,” said Szekely, who is a heavy equipment operator.

It took several days to prepare a proper foundation on the river bed to ensure water would not cause erosion and circumvent the culverts, said Szekely, before the construction could really begin. There will be a “hellish flow of water 4-6 feet high” at times according to the locals, he added.

There will be a total of 28 culverts, spaced equally apart, used for the road. Five reinforced concrete pipes will be located closer to the ends, channeling the heavier volume of water, while 36-inch metal pipes make up the remaining culverts.

With the foundation properly formed, the culverts were put in place and the construction site was a buzz of activity. Marines with shovels redirected debris near the sidewalls building up the shoulder of the road, while multiple pieces of heavy equipment moved back and forth from the rock pile. Dump trucks were loaded, while steel rebar was welded to the outer ends of the culverts, preventing insurgents from placing mines or bombs into them.

Once the culverts were aligned, they were covered with rock material from the wadi basin, estimated at nearly 100 dump truck loads. Gravel was placed on top of the culverts to make a rough road, which was compacted and crowned with a smooth surface.

The difficulty in completing a job like this is the time constraint and the mere “amount of earthwork we have to do,” said Capt. Aaron Fischer, engineering officer and site supervisor from Bloomington, Ill. Fischer, a 2001 Illinois State University graduate, said the mission could not have been done without conducting daily logistics runs to Camp Leatherneck for miscellaneous equipment and supplies, which was located approximately 57 kilometers or 35 miles from the job site.

In the last two months, Szekely said he’s worked on about 15 culvert projects, but they were smaller in scale consisting of only one or two pipes. A project this size has really tested the equipment and determined, “how much it can handle,” said Lance Cpl. Gordan Beier, 21, a heavy equipment operator from Everette, Wash., who is currently on his second deployment to Afghanistan.

The benefit of the wadi project has already reached the local community. When they first arrived to the build site, the Marines visited several residents in the area to ensure everyone knew what was happening, said Szekely.

They all appreciated what was about to take place and one of the civilians said, “It will be much easier for me to get my family to town and to the hospital now.” In addition to benefitting local citizens, the road will also connect several of the outer patrol bases, providing coalition forces the freedom to navigate the area.

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