Story by 2nd Lt. Scott Murdock
On the ground at Regional Command Southwest
“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. “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. 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 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.”
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