FORWARD OPERATING BASE RIPLEY, Afghanistan -- The once dusty strip of land now is a bustling 24-hour airfield supporting thousands of Marines and hosting hundreds of aircraft from different services and countries.
Army and Marine engineers attached to the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) turned a stone-laden patch of terrain into a major military hub in less than a month. Nearly every night Marine KC-130Rs make dusty landings under night vision goggles to bring supplies to the former heartland of the Taliban. The transformation of the airfield is almost as amazing as the small group of Marines and Sailors who keep it open. They are the keepers of the field.
There are three groups of Marines who keep FOB Ripley's airstrip operational; air traffic controllers, expeditionary airfield Marines, and the rescue crew.
The Marine Air Traffic Control Mobile Team, or MMT consists of five Marines responsible for assisting pilots coming and going into FOB Ripley.
"We have been real busy," said Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Roppo. The native of North Olmstead, Ohio, is the assistant team leader for the MMT and he has two air traffic controllers and a navigational aides technician that work with him and a lieutenant that oversees the team.
"With all of the combat missions going on lately, there is a lot to coordinate," said Cpl. Juan Aponte, an air traffic controller from Camden, New Jersey.
Roppo cited a recent day as an example. "The other day we had 14 aircraft on the field at the same time," said Roppo. Among the aircraft were Marine CH-46 Sea Knights, UH-1N Hueys and AH-1W Super Cobras; Army CH-47 Chinooks, AH-64 Apaches, and OH-58 Kiowa Warriors. Later that night Marine KC-130Rs made additional landings at Ripley according to Roppo.
Navy personnel from Expeditionary Strike Group 2, from which the MEU forward deployed, also augmented the MMT for a significant period of time. The WASP Strike Group and the 22nd MEU set sail in mid-February and the MEU pushed inland from the ships to south-central Afghanistan in late March. Getting the airfield operational was key to moving a large force into the region and keeping them supplied.
"We don't bring a lot of gear. Basically, we bring what we carry," said Roppo. The MMT bring brightly colored panels and lights to mark the field. The majority of field lights belong to the Expeditionary Airfield (EAF) Marines.
These Marines are responsible for the lighting, refueling, and maintaining the helicopter parking spots. Gunnery Sgt. William Winand supervises the EAF Marines and says they have performed well in the austere conditions. "In the last three days, our refuelers have dispensed approximately 25,000 gallons of fuel to 45 aircraft," said Winands.
Because FOB Ripley's airstrip is open throughout the night, Winands Marines must also mark unlighted areas by hand using chem lights. Nighttime typically means Marine KC-130Rs are arriving carrying fuel to fill Ripley's huge bladders or supplies to the force.
Watching all of this, Marines with Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting are poised to help at a moment's notice. When these hard-working men are not on watch they are drilling to keep their skills sharp and their reaction times under three minutes to any place near the airstrip.
"Bunker drill!" yells Gunnery Sgt. Charles Beattie, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the rescue crews. Immediately five of the Marines augmenting the 22nd MEU (SOC) from Marine Wing Support Squadron 271, don their heavy flame retardant suits and oxygen tanks. Within two minutes all are dressed and ready for inspection by the senior enlisted Marine. He checks each snap and buckle, ensuring each has completed a dress-out in the allotted time. No shortcuts are taken.
Each Marine knows that each second counts when there is an emergency. They stage their gear in small piles so they can literally step into their boots and pull the remainder of gear on without moving their feet.
"These guys are a really young crew, but they are motivated," said Beattie. He supervised the cleaning and operational testing of the special rescue tools, such as the Jaws of Life and high-powered saws. With all the tools tested, cleaned and staged, Beattie has the Marines get some water and rest next to their vehicles.
"We pretty much live on the vehicles," said Beattie, pointing out the sleeping mats across the hood of their firefighting equipped HMMV. "We have a small crew and a lot of flights, so there is pretty much no down time for us."
The 22nd MEU (SOC) consists of its Command Element, Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 6th Marines, 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.
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.