CAMP DWYER, Afghanistan -- The view during my flight to Camp Dwyer should have been a warning.
I was heading south to report on recent infrastructure improvement projects. I stared out the tail end of the MV-22B Osprey, wondered what the gunner thought of his job, and watched as the ground transformed from fields and homes into barren desert.
A few hours later I found myself jostling about the cab of a beat-down pickup truck on a path rendered nearly impassable by deep scars in the ground left by construction equipment and armored vehicles. My head struck the truck ceiling repeatedly along the broken route.
The intent was to spend time with the engineers, who I’d come to know over the past few months. It didn’t even dawn on me to take a photo of the moonscape perimeter. My time in Helmand has made such scenes feel too routine.
The fringes of Camp Dwyer are parched no-mans-land of torn earth with unpredictably deep pools of fine sand those familiar with Afghanistan call “Moon Dust.” Gusts of wind sweep walls of sand into the air that swallow men and vehicles alike. It’s just a daily reality.
Our truck slowed to a crawl as we maneuvered into a depression. The driver shifted to a lower gear to maintain traction as the truck churned its way through the powdered orange mess. I clung to my rifle with one hand and synched my camera closer to my chest.
It didn’t seem like we would make it, and I could already picture our pathetic attempt to push the truck out of the knee-deep sand. I needed a shower … wanted a tow truck.
One last bounce eventually landed us back on a gravel road and relative stability. We rounded an earthen wall and paralleled it until we reached a squad of Marines with Engineer Company, Combat Logistics Regiment 2.
“The sand makes them look like sugar cookies,” joked one of the passengers.
He was right. A skin of grime and dust clung to the Marines’ sweaty bodies after a day of leveling sand berms and pouring dirt into wire-mesh HESCO containers – collapsible boxes reinforced with heavy-duty fabric.
Individual faces disappeared beneath protective goggles and layers of filth.
It’s been a long month of toil and transformation for the combat engineers and heavy equipment operators here, who started improvement projects at the base near the start of August.
Despite the pervasive desert, Camp Dwyer is actually situated in the Helmand River Valley. In 2008, it was just another forward operating base in the south of the province. It expanded in 2009 with an influx of Marines and became one of the largest bases in the area.
The history of transformation continued under the watch of the CLR-2 Marines. They teamed up with construction crews from the Army, Navy, and other Marine units to reinforce the base’s fortifications with new walls, guard towers and entry control points.
The servicemembers worked round-the-clock rotations to complete the new earthworks meant to provide security.
“It’s a pretty challenging mission,” admitted Sgt. Adam Rehder, a Windyville, Mo., native and combat engineer with CLR-2, who spoke to me at the end of his night shift on the perimeter. “I was kind of worried at first, but we stuck it out.”
I spent the evening with Rehder and his Marines while they erected a guard tower in the dead of night.
They were happy enough to avoid the severe heat of the day, when temperatures often rise above 110 degrees. The flour-like sand clogs air-conditioning systems in the heavy equipment and raises the cabin temperature an additional 10 to 15 degrees.
Crews scaled emplacements to clip and coil old concertina wire as bulldozers showered them with sand. Within thirty minutes, the Marines moved tons of earth and started smoothing out a surface for a HESCO-reinforced tower.
The HESCO is sturdy, but labor intensive.
“[It] takes a toll on your body,” said Rehder, whose work with the material earned him the nickname “HESCO Master.”
Heavy equipment poured sand into the barriers. Marines stood on top of the containers and braced themselves against each load.
“It’s blowing right in your face, and it just sticks to you,” laughed Rehder. “There isn’t anything you can do about it. It’s motivating.”
The work is so taxing the Marines routinely pulled their peers off the barriers and sent them to the cooler as if they were benching an exhausted baseball pitcher.
“I’ve actually grown to like it quite a bit,” confessed Rehder. “It just comes with experience mainly, doing it over and over again.”
Watching the operation was like standing in the center of a dirty, ungraceful but well-choreographed 12-hour ballet. Bulldozers, trams, and shovel-bearing Marines worked side by side with an unspoken understanding of the overall plan.
When the sun crested on the horizon, the exhausted Marines broke into song (Mostly homespun country tunes about how wonderful their jobs are or how much they love this vacation).
“It’s amazing, it really is,” said Rehder. “I’ve been a lot of places, and I just feel like right here is where I’m supposed to be. The motivation level is high, the experience level is high, and it’s just awesome. I really love it.”
Marine engineers are known for being a little wacky.