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Air drops deliver precious supplies to 1/3 Marines in Afghanistan

NAWA, Helmand Province, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan — In the still winter night near Forward Operating Base Geronimo Dec. 27, a team of Marines from the logistics operations section of 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, peered skyward through heat-sensitive thermal monoculars and waited.

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12/31/2009 By Sgt. Brian A. Tuthill, Regimental Combat Team 7

Only minutes from drop time, the Marines scanned the horizon for the distant heat signature of an airplane flying toward them.

“I’ve got it! Here it comes,” Staff Sgt. Jason R. Moore, drop zone commander and logistics operations chief, 1/3, announced to his Marines so they could count the parachutes and watch where they landed.

Seconds later, the United States Air Force C-17 Galaxy, cargo aircraft, flying directly over their heads opened its cargo hold and released 40 palletized bundles of food, water and building materials into the night to float into the drop zone.

When the last thud of impacts sounded, the team loaded back into their humvees and sped to the drop zone to collect the parachutes and prepare the bundles for recovery and transportation back to FOB Geronimo by forklifts and flatbed trailers.

“Basically, because of the limited logistical convoys in the area, we receive food and engineering materials by these air drops,” said Moore, 30, from Redding, Calif., whose team collected 16 other bundles on an earlier drop that night.

“A typical load is about 40 bundles, but we’ll usually do two drops each night. In the last 24 hours, we’ve recovered 86 bundles.”

After the supplies are collected and sorted at FOB Geronimo, they are loaded on ground convoys and sent to the various locations of 1/3’s units throughout Nawa district as they conduct counterinsurgency operations, Moore said.

“These drops are important for the battalion because they keep our supplies up,” said Sgt. Renaldo Gonzales, Jr., assistant drop zone commander and ammo chief, logistics operations section, 1/3. “These keep everyone fed and bring in our building supplies, which we always need.”

The drops are conducted about four nights each week and procure about half of the battalion’s supplies while the other half arrives via ground convoys.

“I think the need for these items is so great that logistics battalions don’t have the assets to ground convoy all that we need to us,” said Moore. “Also, there is the [improvised explosive device] threat travelling by ground and enemy out there. With the air drops there is less of a threat involved than putting Marines on the road. It’s faster, safer and quicker and works out well for us.”

The pallets are cubed bundles of goods with a thick corrugated cardboard crash pad at the bottom to absorb the force of impact. Most of the time, bundles arrive without incident, but occasionally the parachutes malfunction and send hundreds of pounds of supplies plummeting through the night sky to slam into the ground at more than 120 miles per hour.

“These parachutes are man-packed and, like anything, can malfunction, in what we call a ‘burn chute,’” said Moore.

“When that pallet comes out the back of the plane and the parachute doesn’t deploy correctly, it just falls straight down from 3,000 feet. When it hits, it’s hitting at terminal velocity and there’s usually not much left of it when that happens.

“We had one tonight which had a lot of canned vegetables and there was nothing we could really salvage from that,” said Moore. “It looked like an explosion hit it. It was mess. It’s not a huge loss to us operationally, but it’s still food and money spent that is wasted.”

Once the bundles are lifted onto truck beds, Moore and his logisticians discard the used parachutes near the drop zone.

“The parachutes are only good once and we don’t need them at camp, so we leave them in a pile out here because local nationals will come and get them to use for waterproofing or protecting their crops from the cold,” Moore said.

For the Marines of the battalion’s logistics operations section, who normally work at desks or around FOB Geronimo during the day, having the opportunity to conduct these fast-paced night operations is an exciting change-of-pace and chance to build camaraderie.

“It’s great to be able to get out and be able to move around outside of the FOB,” said Pfc. Kurt M. Cahill, logistics embarkation chief for 1/3. “It’s fun and cool to watch the bundles drop – explaining it really doesn’t do it justice.

“It’s a lot of late nights for us, but we don’t really think about it,” said Cahill, 19, from Bradford, Maine. “We’re out here and joke with each other to make it fun while we wait.”

“All of my Marines come from different walks of life and they really come together to make this happen every day,” said Gonzales, 28, from Abilene, Texas, who, along with Moore, credit their continued success on the hard work of their Marines. “This is definitely outside of our regular jobs, and it’s fun. This is kind of the behind-the-scenes of everything.

“We’re here in Afghanistan and we get to do something unique like go out in the middle of the night to call in aircraft,” said Gonzalez. “In the morning everyone wakes up and there are suddenly more pallets in the yard. They don’t know what it takes in accomplishing that. This is not a desk job and we really do look forward to this every day. We always have a sky full of parachutes, so we’re always busy.”