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Marines with Alpha Company, 9th Engineer Support Battalion throw pieces of wood from a tent into the back of a dump truck at Support Battalion, guide a bulldozer as it moves the berm surrounding a guard post at Firebase Saenz, Helmand province, Dec. 15. FB Saenz is the first of several patrol bases being demilitarized by the Marines of 9th ESB throughout the month of December.

Photo by Cpl. Bryan Nygaard

Combat engineers tear down patrol bases throughout Helmand province, paving way for Afghan pullout

22 Dec 2011 | Cpl. Bryan Nygaard

Firebase Saenz has been destroyed. Its defenses have been torn down and its walls have been completely leveled. This destruction was not caused by insurgents – it was the handiwork of Marines from the 9th Engineer Support Battalion, 2nd Marine Logistics Group (Forward).

With the recent reduction and reorganization of troops, Saenz is the first of several forward operating bases being demilitarized in Helmand province.

The firebase, which covered a little over 11 acres of Afghan desert, was built more than a year ago and named after Sgt. Jose Saenz III who was killed in action, Aug. 9, 2010. During its existence, Saenz housed Marine artillery units armed with M777 Lightweight Howitzer cannons that provided indirect fire support for coalition ground forces operating in the northern half of Helmand province.

After convoying north from Camp Leatherneck, the Marines of 9th ESB worked diligently from Dec. 13-15 to properly dismantle the base and ensure that there was little, if any, footprint from the Marines.

“Even though it can be difficult [demilitarizing the base], you kind of just want to wreck the place, you know, have some fun with it,” said 1st Lt. Andrew Fassett, commander of 1st Platoon, Alpha Company, 9th ESB, and a native of Princetown, N.Y. “But [the Marines] have been doing a good job taking everything down and making sure to keep it neat so it fits on the truck. We did the right job in terms of cleaning up after ourselves here in Afghanistan.”

Doing the right job included emptying sandbags, pushing down berms and coiling up hundreds of yards of razor-sharp concertina wire surrounding Saenz.

One of the more challenging tasks was dismantling the numerous HESCO barriers that made up the guard posts at each corner of the base. HESCO barriers (named after the British company HESCO Bastion) are military fortifications that have seen extensive use in both Iraq and Afghanistan. A typical HESCO is 4 feet tall and 3 feet wide and is made of a collapsible wire mesh container with a heavy-duty fabric liner that is usually filled with sand.

The Marines used tractors, forklifts, electric saws, shovels, pick axes, bolt cutters, knives and their hands to rip apart the HESCO barriers that once protected the Marines at Saenz from explosive blasts and small arms fire.

“It’s pretty tedious work for myself and the other Marines,” said Lance Cpl. Zachary Couch, a combat engineer with Alpha Co. and a native of Alton, Ill. “Using all the power tools, especially the bolt cutters - those get hard after a while…after at least two or three 7-foot HESCO’s, chopping them down from top to bottom. It gets pretty tough.”

The Marines that were equipped with the electric saws were able to cut through the wire mesh with relative ease compared to the bolt cutters. The sparks they produced lit up the evening sky and resembled fireworks that could be seen on the Fourth of July.

As darkness fell, the Marines used the headlights from the tractors to aid them in their disassembly of the HESCO’s. As they continued working deep into the night, the temperature dropped below 20 degrees, forcing them to put on more and more warming layers.

A little bit before midnight, the Marines called it a day. There were no tents to house them in so they slept inside of the armored vehicles that brought them up to Saenz. Several Marines would cram into one vehicle and sleep in some very awkward and uncomfortable positions on top of their packs and body armor. The more Marines that crammed into a vehicle, the warmer it got inside.

The Marines woke up the next morning, the sun shone on their weather-beaten faces that were still covered with sand from the day before. They grabbed their tools and slowly made their way back to where they had left off the night before.

During the night, the bulldozers had pushed over and flattened the berms that made up the walls of the base, thereby removing protection from any possible insurgent fire. From then on, the Marines had to wear their helmets and body armor. Although it made it slightly more difficult for the Marines to accomplish their duties, it did increase their protection against any possible enemy fire.

Cpl. James Hernandez, a fire team leader in Alpha Company, was still sore from the day before and recovering from small burns inflicted by the sparks that the electric saw created. With fatigue wearing on the Marines under his charge, the Goodyear, Ariz., native would frequently gather them around him and offer some words of encouragement and motivation.

“I hate the cold,” said Hernandez. “It just gets to you after a while. That’s when all the morale starts going down when it starts getting cold or in the morning, trying to get everyone out of the racks or out of the vehicles which are a little bit warmer than outside.

“It gets kind of tiring every once in a while, trying to figure out how to keep the morale up and try to keep them going as fast as they’ve been going…it wears you out a little bit.”

Lance Cpl. Tameka Demps, a combat engineer in Alpha Company, finds her motivation in the work that she does.

“I just like to work, I like to be busy,” said the Las Vegas, native. “If I stop, I just, I don’t know – I feel like I’m not doing anything. I like doing this. It’s exhausting, but it’s fun.”

Standing at barely 5 feet tall, Demps was constantly working, picking up pieces of HESCO that probably weighed as much as she does. Over time, her pace slowed down a bit, but she would never be seen with idle hands. Once all the work was completed, she grabbed a trash bag and began picking up small pieces of trash that were on the ground.

“It’s just helping out with the main mission,” said Demps. “We finish this base, we go on to the next one – we can get this deployment over with and go home.”

Once the Marines of 9th ESB finished dismantling Saenz, they headed toward the next patrol base. They will be working through Christmas and New Year’s, dismantling more patrol bases while navigating roads that are laced with improvised explosive devices.


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