Combat engineers serve at forefront of 22d MEU (SOC)'s Afghanistan operations

26 May 2004 | Gunnery Sgt. Keith A. Milks

Lance Cpl. Michael Mason has a dirty, exhausting job.

Carrying a rifle in one hand and an entrenching tool in the other, he trudges up and down the steep, rocky hills of south-central Afghanistan digging holes and climbing through holes and doorways far too small for his six-foot two-inch frame.

As a combat engineer whose squad is assigned to Alpha Company, Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 6th Marines, Mason has the dubious honor of being first to enter the scores of houses, barns, wells, and miscellaneous compounds littering his unit's assigned search area.

"We go in looking for weapons, drugs, anything the people aren't supposed to have and also check for booby traps or explosives," said Sgt. Johnathan Gonzales, Mason's squad leader and engineer leader in one of the two search times operating with Alpha Company.  "When we come up on a building or well, we're the first ones in."

In the area of Afghanistan where BLT 1/6, the ground combat element of the 22d Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) , is operating, the searches require a bit more finesse than most people think Marines are capable.

"When we come up on a compound we let the people know who we are and what we're doing and ask them to bring out any weapons they have," explained Gonzales.  "We give them the chance to come clean."

Despite the locals' smiles and assurances they are 'enemies of the Taliban,' Gonzales and his fellow engineers know that this region has long harbored Taliban and anti-coalition militia and refuse to take any claims of innocence at face value until they've had a look around.

"The villagers are real good at hiding stuff," said Gonzales, "and every day we're getting better at finding it."

Searches are usually two-pronged; visual and electronic.

"We look for anything out of the ordinary like fresh-turned dirt or things that look at of place."

But they don't stop there because everything gets close scrutiny.  For example, one team found a grenade in a cooking pot and another found rifle ammunition in a jug normally used to carry water.

Another tool used in the search is the metal detector, which the three or four-man teams usually trade off carrying.  The Marines scan buildings' walls, roofs and floors thoroughly, and since most rural Afghan buildings are made of clay and thatch, anything that pings off the metal detector's sensors automatically rates another look. 

"They've been known to hide stuff inside walls," said Cpl. Brandon Schulte, another engineer team leader, "so we check everything.  We make sure the walls aren't too thick and the rooms are the right size for the house [to ensure there are no false rooms]."

Outside, the Marines check under haystacks and piles of brush, beneath mounds of trash, and inside wells.  This is where Mason and his shovel checks in.

"It's probably just a piece of metal someone buried with the trash," said Gonzales as he watched Mason flail away at the sun-dried earth with his e-tool.

Every few minutes, the Marine with the metal detector rechecks the spot where they got the hit and the sharp ringing comes in louder so Mason turns to again, eventually trading off with Gonzales before the mid-afternoon heat takes its toll.

In time, Gonzales' prediction comes true as he holds up a rusted a battered piece of tin the size of a sheet of paper.  Flinging the tin away, Gonzales watches disappointedly as another scan with the detector comes up clean.

Shrugging off the fruitless effort, the Marines turn to their new objective, another, larger compound several hundred meters away.

In addition to BLT 1/6, the 22d MEU (SOC) consists of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 266 (Reinforced) and MEU Service Support Group 22.  The unit is Afghanistan conducting combat and civil military operations as Task Force Linebacker alongside Combined Joint Task Force 76.

For more information on the 22d MEU (SOC)'s role in Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, visit the unit's web site at www.22meu.usmc.mil.
22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit