FORWARD OPERATING BASE RIPLEY, Afghanistan -- After weaving through the mountains of south-central Afghanistan, darting back and forth to deter would-be attackers, the three CH-46E Sea Knight helicopters of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 266 (Reinforced) are getting thirsty.
Breaking through the mountain passes and entering the open area known as the Tarin Kowt bowl, the three helicopters descend through clouds of dust and touch down on white squares called mobi-matting, a multi-sectioned expeditionary landing strip held together with tent pin-like stakes.
Almost as soon as the helicopters come to a halt, Marines wearing goggles and many with bandanas or shemagh head cloths covering their noses and mouths sprint, through the billowing clouds of dust to quench the aircrafts' thirst.
These bulk fuel specialists from HMM-266 (Rein), the aviation combat element of the 22d Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), have set up shop at Forward Operating Base Ripley, the MEU's base of operations in south-central Afghanistan. Augmented by engineers from MEU Service Support Group 22, they refuel helicopters supporting the MEU's combat and civil military operations on an almost daily basis.
According to First Lt. Richard Alvarez, a CH-46E Sea Knight pilot from Corpus Christi, Texas, Afghanistan's harsh climate and conditions conspire to degrade the performance of the squadron's helicopter fleet.
"The heat and altitude in Afghanistan affects lift capacity, including how much fuel we can carry," Alvarez said, "so the forward refueling station is absolutely vital to our operations."
Dragging long hoses to the aircraft, the refuelers, working alongside the aircrafts' enlisted flight crews, spend only a few minutes topping off the tanks as another Marine sprints from aircraft to aircraft recording the how much fuel is dispensed. Their task done, the refuelers put their gear away and retreat from the landing spots as the helicopters lift off again, once again blanketing the area with dust.
In addition to HMM-266 (Rein) and MSSG-22, the 22d MEU (SOC) consists of its Command Element and Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 6th Marines. Designated Task Force Linebacker, the MEU is operating alongside Combined Joint Task Force 76.
For more information on the MEU's role in Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, visit the unit's web site at www.22meu.usmc.mil.