FORWARD OPERATING BASE RIPLEY, Afghanistan -- In a land where water is nearly as valuable as gold, Marines from the 22d Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) are making themselves rich.
Hygiene equipment operators with MEU Service Support Group 22, operate two reverse osmosis water purification units (ROWPU) to replenish the thousands of gallons used daily by the MEU as it conducts combat and civil-military operations in central Afghanistan.
"We handle water distribution and storage, along with the field showers and laundry; although we are not doing laundry here," said Staff Sgt. Michael Talavera, the Hygiene Equipment Chief. The Framingham, Mass. Marine walked under the camouflage-netted enclosure where he and five additional hygiene equipment operators keep up with water demands of the entire MEU.
The ROWPUs are a versatile way for Marines to remove contaminants from saltwater or freshwater. In Afghanistan water is pumped out of a tiny river near Tarin Kowt, loaded into trucks and brought to FOB Ripley. There it is pumped into a bladder and eventually into the ROWPU where it passes through filters. After filtration, the water is then treated with chlorine to ensure it is safe for consumption. The chlorine helps combat waterborne diseases.
"I consider myself an 'aquatic engineer,'" said Cpl. Daniel Hillenbrand of Allentown, Pa. Hillenbrand is a hygiene equipment operator and spends the majority of his time monitoring gauges, changing filters and testing water purity.
"This is the best piece of gear," said Hillenbrand, motioning to the ROWPU. The entire unit is only 8 by 10 ft. and can fit on the back of a standard Marine seven-ton truck, although the MSSG chose to keep the units on the ground to allow the trucks to be used for other purposes.
The 600-GPH (gallons per hour) ROWPU version the MEU uses can easily make 1,200 gallons of water per hour with a freshwater source. Saltwater requires more effort and production drops off to approximately 600 gallons per hour.
Staff Sgt. Vincent Morgan, the MSSG-22 Utilities Chief by billet and hygiene equipment operator by trade, said, "I wouldn't go anywhere without it (600-GPH ROWPU). I've been doing this for 12 years and I've never had a problem with this piece of gear. You can run these continuously without any problems."
Morgan mentioned that there are other higher production models available, but he thinks that the Marine Corps has a winner in the 600-GPH versions.
Water is never overlooked in the MEU, and no Marine is happier to offer it than Lance Cpl. Joe Shelton. He is a hygiene equipment operator and has been with MSSG-22 for a year. Shelton, a Decatur, Tenn. native, enjoys his job.
"Water is always needed. I like my job because I provide something that's needed and also something that boosts morale...like showers," said Shelton. "Our job is all about helping Marines."
The ROWPU produces high quality water. The quality is measured in total dissolved solids (TDS) parts per million. Bottled water purchased in stores has a TDS level of between 115 and 140. The water coming from the ROWPU has levels ranging from 1 to 99 TDS parts per million.
"It makes a cleaner water than the bottled water," said Talavera. The Marines test the water quality each day when they begin production with small test sets. They want to ensure that the water is ready for use.
Marines with the 22d MEU (SOC) can continue operations in Afghanistan thanks to the 'aquatic engineers' of MSSG-22.
The 22d MEU (SOC) is deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM. The MEU's command element, 1st Bn, 6th Marines, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron (Rein.) 266 and the MEU Service Support Group 22 are now making up the majority of Task Force Linebacker as they conduct combat and civil-military operations in central Afghanistan.
For more information on the 22d MEU (SOC) visit their web site at www.22meu.usmc.mil.