FORWARD OPERATING BASE RIPLEY, Afghanistan -- Decades of war have left Afghanistan's civil infrastructure in shambles, and nowhere is this more evident than in the country's lack of roads and highways.
As the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) pushes deeper into Afghanistan in its hunt for Taliban and anti-coalition militia, the Marines responsible for traversing these dangerous and unimproved roads are showing their true colors.
For more than three weeks, the truck drivers and mechanics from MSSG-22's Transportation Support Detachment (TSD) have been forging over Afghanistan's rough-hewn roads in their Humvees and seven-ton trucks keeping the MEU in the fight.
"Most of our [ground assault convoy] missions have been resupply runs and driving Marines into and out of missions," said Lance Cpl. Kevin Prindable, of Granite City, Illinois, a motor transport operator with MEU Service Support Group 22. "We're always on the move."
While the drivers remain poised and ready to support each of the MEU's major subordinate elements, the terrain is taking its toll on the vehicles themselves.
"The roads are real rough," said Lance Cpl. Timothy Culbertson, of Breman, Ohio, "and it's not only the roads, but the terrain. There are rocks everywhere and really sharp turns. It's hard on the trucks."
"We're seeing a lot of flat tires and problems with seals, power steering, and shocks and springs," he continued, alluding to the problems associated with vehicles constantly bouncing over the rough terrain.
Despite these problems, MSSG-22's cadre of motor transport mechanics are keeping the vehicles rolling. Whether it's on the road or at one of the MEU's forward operating bases, mechanical problems are constantly being met and conquered.
While the terrain has an affect on the vehicles, the most noticeable change is in the drivers themselves.
"We're getting better every day," said Lance Cpl. Gustavis Barfield, of Decatur, Georgia, another MSSG-22 operator. "Some of the marginal drivers have turned outstanding and we're all seeing our skills improve."
"These are really nasty, jagged roads we're driving," Barfield continued. "We're learning to judge turns, decide which is the best ground to go over, and what our trucks can and can't do."
According to Prindable, who's nearing his three-year mark in the Marine Corps, navigating the difficult terrain is a team effort.
"There's always a gunner on top manning a .50 caliber or MK-19 machine gun. He's a driver too and usually has a better view of where we should go so he'll shout directions to the driver and guide from up top."
Shortly after the MEU began conducting combat operations in Afghanistan, a truck driven by an MSSG-22 Marine struck a carefully-hidden improvised explosive device. The blast wounded the driver and two other Marines, and since then, the TSD drivers have grown even more vigilant traveling what some have dubbed 'IED Alley.'
"We're always on the look-out for IEDs and ambushes," said Prindable, "but we can't let that slow us down because we have a job to do."
While an infantryman charging into a firefight may capture far more headlines than a Marine behind the wheel of a seven-ton truck, the MEU's combat operations would grind to a sudden halt without the bravery and hard work of these young men and women.
"In my opinion they're the unsung heroes of this operation," said Maj. Michael R. Barrett, executive officer of MSSG-22.
In addition to MSSG-22, the 22nd MEU (SOC) consists of its Command Element, Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 6th Marines, and Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 266 (Reinforced). The MEU is in Afghanistan conducting combat and civil military operations as Task Force Linebacker.
For more information on the 22nd MEU (SOC)'s role in Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, visit the unit's web site at www.22meu.usmc.mil.