Sgt. Christopher Schaefer, a heavy equipment operator with Marine Wing Support Squadron 274, takes a break from searching gravel trucks here, June 17, to joke with the interpreter working with the unit. Schaefer controlled the entry control point, directing four Marines and making sure the right amount of trucks arrived at the base. Schaefer and his Marines searched more than 100 vehicles throughout the day.
FOB EDINBURGH, Afghanistan (June 21, 2010) — Life here is austere and Spartan at best. Howling winds coat everything with a talcum-like dust, there are few escapes from the searing heat, electricity is scarce, hot meals are a rarity yet the morale is probably the highest I have seen in southern Afghanistan.
Albeit a rough place to live and nestled in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the country – Edinburgh is a haven for the warriors of Marine Wing Support Squadron 274. Salaam Bazaar, Musa Qal’eh, and Now Zad ring the small forward operating base and Taliban strongholds are visible on the imposing mountains looming just a few miles from the base.
The support squadron, from Cherry Point, N.C., assumed responsibility for the FOB from the U.K. a few months ago and has since transformed the small compound into a functional and somewhat comfortable living space. The squadron introduced electricity provided by gas-fueled generators, set up laundry services, established a chow hall where Marines can eat two hot meals a day, built showers and began purifying water.
The squadron also expanded the borders of the small FOB, pushing the berm out hundreds of meters to accommodate an influx of Marines and to clear the way for its main project – an assault landing strip capable of hosting medical evacuation helicopters, assault support helicopters and attack helicopters. In addition to the assault strip, MWSS-274 has installed forward area refueling points capable of hot and cold refuels for all types of helicopters, including those used by other coalition forces.
Yet, even with these “amenities” and more than 200 inhabitants the base is quiet during the day, the silence occasionally split by an exploding improvised exploding device or the artillery battery here executing a fire mission. At night the place is almost serene. The view of the stars is entrancing and most nights you can find dozens of Marines sitting or laying outside star gazing, using one of the few satellite phones to make over-due calls to their families. The lack of light and the base’s seclusion provide a crisp, clear picture of the constellations.
The Marines and sailors have to use satellite phones because the other lines of communication on the FOB are somewhat unreliable. Although the morale center is receiving an upgrade that will allow Marines internet access, the only lines home now are two DSN phones in small, cage-like structures. But most of the Marines don’t care-they talk to their families when they can and spend the rest of their time with their peers. The added element of seclusion bolsters the already strong camaraderie.
Mail for these warriors comes once a month if they are lucky. Convoys roll in with hundreds of packages that working parties separate into about a dozen different bins. Marines dig eagerly through the piles and often stagger off with their arms full of long-awaited packages. Sometimes they leave disappointed and empty-handed, but care packages here are often opened and left out so every Marine can take what they need. There is no hoarding or concept of excess here; the Marines share openly and willingly.
Every Marine on the FOB is expected to man guard posts or run entry control points in addition to their daily duties, which places many of the aviation Marines in unfamiliar roles. They trade their wrenches, cranials and heavy equipment for flares, night vision goggles and crew-served weapons to stand four-hour shifts at one of the crude security posts ringing the FOB. Although the base is not regularly attacked, there are constant signs that the Taliban is watching Edinburgh. Explosive ordnance technicians routinely dispose of IEDs placed within a few hundred yards of the FOB’s perimeter.
The cooks aboard Edinburgh serve hot breakfast and dinner – lunch is always an MRE – dishing out about 400 meals every day. Although the food is heat-and-serve, it provides a great relief from the constant flow of MREs that were the main source of sustenance until about a month ago. The menus do not vary widely, but most of the Marines are thankful for hot food and a chance to relax in the air-conditioned dining tent, lit by plug-in lights hanging from the tent braces.
Supplies are scarce aboard the base. What Marines don’t get from home in care packages they can purchase from a traveling post exchange that visits the FOB about every six weeks. It’s like a holiday when the trucks arrive, laden with supplies. A line of dozens of Marines stretches away from the truck as shoppers scavenge the aisles for hygiene gear, energy drinks and tobacco. It usually takes several hours to get through the line.
Edinburgh is on the opposite end of the spectrum than sprawling combat metropolises like Kandahar Air Field. The life service members live at larger installations is vastly different than that aboard this barebones FOB. But the Marines here explained that comfort is relative; they feel they live a lavish life compared to their brothers sleeping in fighting holes outside the wire. These Marines love their little oasis, and most don’t want to leave. Sacrificing running water, electricity, real food, sewage systems and other amenities is worth it to them if they can bring support a little closer to the fight.