Story by 2nd Lt. Scott Murdock
HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan – “When I was here last, we had a 12-year-old boy turn his father in for making [improvised explosive devices],” said Capt. Aaron Fisher, Support Company commander, 9th Engineer Support Battalion. “We asked him why he’d do that. He said he learned in school that IEDs are bad and that bad people make them.”
Route Tiffany runs east-to-west through the low rolling hills of southwest Afghanistan. Constant wind makes the air thick with sun-bleached dust and the sweet smell of blooming poppy. The landscape is as beautiful as it is deadly.
Marines from 9th ESB left Camp Leatherneck in northern Helmand province the morning of March 27 to begin construction on the new road. They reached the dry riverbed, called a wadi by locals, where they would begin construction and established security by early afternoon.
The construction team “rolled out a click and a half of road the next day,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Matt Lovely, Heavy Equipment Platoon commander, Support Company. One or two kilometers of road per day is exactly the pace the Marines were accustomed to. The next week would not see similar results.
The night of March 28, one of the team’s armored vehicles was struck by an IED that killed one Marine and wounded two others. At that point, it became clear that creating Route Tiffany would not be a typical mission. Telling signs of the insurgency warned that by leaving the established security area Marines risked driving into what was likened to a minefield.
Marines bore the effects of this attack in their hearts and on their bodies. Cpl. Nickolas Gaversoni, security team leader for the first convoy to begin work on Route Tiffany, pulled his Marines from the stricken vehicle. His uniform was torn from his body in places and he was covered in motor oil. Like all Marines there, he continued working in a way that honored his brothers’ sacrifice.
A second team, composed of Marines from Support Company, 9th ESB, Army explosive ordnance disposal, and an Army route clearance platoon, was dispatched from Camp Leatherneck on April 1 to relieve the Marines in the wadi. From the time the convoy departed friendly lines it was confronted with small-arms fire and IEDs.
One of the most frustrating challenges was identifying which individuals posed a threat.
“A kid carrying yellow jugs in a wheelbarrow could be getting water for his mom or he could be getting ammonium nitrate to blow us up,” Fisher said. “One is a hostile act, one is just a good deed for his mom.”
Fisher explained several reasons for the opposition the teams faced. Insurgents often use IEDs to protect the poppy fields that provide the revenue with which they fund the insurgency. They also see any sort of improvement to the infrastructure of Afghanistan as a threat because it decreases the degree to which the local population relies on insurgent support.
An established road running directly through poppy fields poses a serious threat to insurgents.
“Basically wherever you put pavement, terrorists go away,” said 1st Lt. Andrez Posada, Motor Transport Platoon commander with Support Company, 9th ESB.
The combined teams received the full support of their command and quickly sent a strong message to the local population.
“We’re here to build roads,” said Brig. Gen. John Broadmeadow, commanding general of 1st Marine Logistics Group (Forward). “The roads will help you. You can let the insurgents take that away or you can help us build roads.”
The Marines of Support Company were backed by the full force of Marine fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft from 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), unmanned aerial vehicles from 1st MLG(Fwd), coordination from 1st Marine Division (Forward) and I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward), Army route clearance platoons and explosive ordnance disposal units, British rotary-wing aircraft, and Georgian ground patrols and mortar illumination.
“It feels good to know I’m being backed up,” Posada said. “Now that we’ve got the support we need, we’ll do it.”
The teams identified threats in the route ahead using ground and air assets, and cleared the way using various methods of controlled detonations. The road quickly became crowded with armored trucks and heavy machinery. Marines labored under heavy body armor stained with rings of sweat.
As the sun set each night, a second shift of Marines, soldiers and Navy corpsmen took to the road to continue nonstop construction under the watchful eyes of Marines picketed along the entire route.
Georgian mortars cast an eerie glow over the desert, steadily hanging illumination rounds over the road and adjacent compounds. Under the flares’ flickering light, white poppy blooms turned bright orange in the black fields.
Days were marked by explosions from a combination of insurgents’ homemade explosives and military countermeasures. Line charges ripped through the sky and fell ahead of the convoy. The charges, and any IEDs in their path, detonated with shock waves that rippled across the fine Helmand sand.
Every indicator of a potential IED was treated with the utmost caution.
“There’s a 99 percent chance that command wire is from a previous blast,” 1st Lt. Tony Cox, the convoy commander said. “But there’s still a one percent chance that I don’t want to risk.”
Fisher frequently spoke to local farmers to gain information and communicate his mission. Sitting in the sand between the road and poppy fields with village elders, Fisher explained that the road would bring them access to schools, hospitals and commerce. Before using explosives to clear IEDs he assured them he was not there to threaten their lives or livelihoods.
“I am a peaceful man,” Fisher said. “I have a family. I believe in God.”
Broadmeadow visited his Marines to share words of encouragement and to ensure they were being taken care of. He asked several Marines what they needed, and how he could help them. He comforted those whose friends had been wounded or killed. His face showed genuine concern as he told even the most junior of Marines to look after one another. As he addressed a large group just before nightfall, the general demonstrated the kind of resolve and determination that makes Marines successful.
“This is not easy,” Broadmeadow said. “But it’s who we are, and it’s what we do.”
The general’s visit marked the completion of the road that linked the established road to the west to the wadi that provided the gravel for Route Tiffany. He gave his closing remarks as the sun sank below the wadi’s protective berm. New aircraft arrived overhead to keep watch over the construction crews below. Thick black clouds of diesel exhaust coughed from dump trucks and graders. Headlights flashed to life and night-vision goggles sprouted from helmets. The Marines turned east and began a new stretch of road.
“We’re the engineers,” Fisher said. “If we can’t find a way, we’ll make a way. That’s what we’re going to do right now.”